While many Americans have returned to the workplace, millions more are still working from home, and far too many of them — even after all these months — are still struggling with aches and pains due to poor posture from improper at-home workstations.
More than half of U.S. adults regularly experience such musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions like back, neck, shoulder and joint pain. As COVID-19 lingers, and working from home morphs to a more permanent reality, it’s important not to let poor practice create permanent ailments.
In most of my work with patients, I find that work-from-home employees plop themselves down in an awkward position and stay there until they’re uncomfortable. That can lead to a lot of MSK issues – with pain that can come quickly and stay a while.
I work regularly to help improve my patients’ working positions and advise them on proper equipment set-up to improve posture and alignment, thus improving their pain and/or reducing the likelihood of pain.
Here are my best tips for managing pain to share with your employees as they work from home:
Create schedule, plan goals
First and foremost is your work, so plan your daily project goals then build a schedule of breaks and stretches around them. I recommend getting up and away from your workstation every two hours or more frequently if you’re uncomfortable. If you have been sitting, take a minute to stand or walk, perform a few back and neck stretches, or grab a drink. Whatever it is, it’s most important to break up static postures with movement.
In addition to the above longer breaks, work in micro-breaks – pauses that don’t stop your tasks or focus – every 15-20 minutes. These are as simple as opening and closing hands, applying lotion, looking up at the ceiling or blinking your eyes a few times. Even try some posture realignment exercises like pulling your shoulders back and lengthening your back.
Sit down the right way
Lounging on the couch with your feet propped up is not a good posture for frequent, long durations. Instead, you should be in a seated posture at a workstation, with your feet flat on the floor or a stable surface. Your seat should be supportive and seat pan have some cushion. Make sure you have a back rest to support your spine, otherwise your spine and neck will become rounded. Put a pillow behind your back if you need additional support.
Align elbows and wrists
Place your typing surface and mouse on the same level. The height of the level should be measured by where the wrists are, which should be in line with the elbows. When bent, this creates usually a 90-degree angle of the elbow.
Elevate your monitor
Position your screen so your neck is in a neutral position – not craning up, hunching down or leaning forward. The recommended monitor placement is an arms-length away. Note you may need to raise your monitor to achieve the appropriate height for you. After adjusting your posture from this and the above tips, your ears, shoulders and hips should be aligned.
Not everyone gets a stipend to purchase equipment for working from home, so think outside the box when elevating your technology to the proper levels. Prop up your laptop with books. Use a TV dinner tray for your keyboard and mouse. If you have a smart TV, try casting your computer screen to it in place of a monitor.
Don’t invest in an expensive standing desk. Despite their popularity, prolonged standing can actually be as harmful as sitting. Long durations of static standing aren’t good for the heart and spinal muscles, because you’ll likely be standing with poor posture. If you want to working standing up, create a temporary desk on your counter with books.
Lastly, if you continue to experience pain after adjusting your workstation and posture, consider scheduling a physical therapy appointment. Physical therapists can diagnose and treat 70% of MSK conditions, via both in-person and virtual appointments. Physical therapy is also a faster, less expensive and more accessible route to treatment compared to traditional medical care, helping patients get back to feeling better quicker.