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COVID-19: Back-saving tips to help improve your workspace as you work from home

Pain from working from home.
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Written by Jennifer Palisoc

Many people are having to get creative with makeshift workspaces as they work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maybe you’ve been working at the kitchen table, or on your couch.  Perhaps your bed has become a temporary desk.

Whatever your new workstation is, it may be time to take a good look at where, and how, you’re working to help prevent injury such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) which cause pain in muscles, tendons and nerves.

“The most vulnerable areas are upper back, low back, neck, shoulder, elbows, hands and wrists,” says Moein Habibi, occupational therapist at St. John’s Rehab.

Some common MSDs include:

  • Joint soreness and pain: can be caused by improper ergonomics and not taking enough breaks.
  • Swelling, or edema of the legs: may result from not stretching and walking enough during work hours.
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers: can be the result of improper keyboard and mouse angles.

“If these MSDs are not dealt with in a timely manner, they can later develop into chronic injuries such as back pain, carpal tunnel injuries, advanced spinal degeneration, postural aging, even metabolic and respiratory dysfunction,” explains Habibi.

Tips for setting up your workspace

Perhaps you’ve been feeling some aches and pains after working at your coffee table throughout the pandemic. You can still make changes to your workstation that may be more ergonomic to help ease strain experienced throughout the workday.

Lighting – Too much or too little lighting can make a big difference in your workday. “Adequate lighting is important to help reduce eye strain,” explains Habibi. “Avoid working in a dark room, or a room with too much lighting, as these can cause eye strain and possible headaches.”

Positioning – “This is known as the 90-90-90 rule,” says Habibi. “Elbows should be at 90 degrees, hips should be at 90 degrees (sitting upright), and knees should be at 90 degrees.” This will help reduce the risk of strain and improve comfort throughout your workday.

Chair – Try to avoid working on the couch or in bed. It may seem comfortable in the short term but can lead to neck, back and wrist strains. “If you have an office chair, that is great,” says Habibi. “If not, try using a chair with arms to rest your elbows on. Make sure your chair has proper lumbar support to help protect your lower back from injury and help keep the spine aligned. If needed, you can use a rolled-up towel or pillow for lumbar support.”

Computer Monitor – The computer monitor should be about an arm’s length away. “If it is too far you may end up bending your neck forward and creating neck strain. If it is too close it may cause eye strain. Make sure you position it at eye level or slightly below,” says Habibi.

Keyboard and mouse – “Place the keyboard and mouse in a way that allows your wrists to be kept straight.” explains Habibi. “This will minimize your risk of developing carpal tunnel injuries and other types of wrist injuries down the road.”

Desk set-up – One way to avoid unnecessary strain on the body is to arrange the desk in a way that can be “ergonomically compatible with your working needs,” says Habibi. “Keep frequently used items close by, at a forearm’s reach, for example, a pen, pencil, mouse or keyboard. Items that are used less frequently should be at arm’s reach (e.g. phone, papers, scissors, and stapler). Things like printers, scanners or files may not be used very often and can be placed further away.”

Other ways to prevent injury while working from home

Take breaks – Experts say it is important to get up and move every 30 minutes to reduce health risks linked to prolonged sitting such as heart disease, diabetes, or chronic illness. Walking breaks and stretch breaks can be helpful in preventing strain on the eyes, neck, shoulders, forearms and low back. “Changing tasks and alternating between sitting and standing, reclined sitting and walking, helps to avoid the negative effects of prolonged work at the workstation,” says Habibi. There are many benefits to taking movement breaks. Use an app or schedule times in your calendar to get up and move.

Avoid “awkward” postures – Whether you’re tilting your head to hold the phone against your shoulder while you talk, bending wrists upwards or downwards too frequently, tilting back in your chair, crossing your legs for a long period of time, or keeping elbows away from the body while typing, simply avoiding these ‘awkward’ postures can help reduce strain and injury while you work.

Recognize when something is wrong – “MSDs typically start with discomfort and stiffness, and then progress into pain, fatigue, weakness,” says Habibi. “Over time, if pain and fatigue are more dominant than rest and recovery, and if ergonomic changes are not incorporated, things can get worse. If individuals are unsure of the cause of their pain and how to alleviate it, then they should certainly reach out to their health care provider for help.”

Whether it’s lighting or keyboard placement, experts say these workstation adjustments can make a difference, “In some cases, benefits can be felt instantly through ergonomic changes,” says Habibi. “But, it’s important to note that changing a workstation is only one piece of the puzzle. Overall health habits also include getting a good night’s rest along with improving nutrition, fitness, and hydration to maximize health benefits.”

Making some simple changes to workstations can help prevent strain and risk of injury, in addition, incorporating other healthy habits can help have a positive impact overall as many continue to work from home.

Learn more about adapting and adjusting your workstation.

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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