Neck and back pain: 5 easy ways to protect your neck and back while working from home

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New research from Bupa UK has found that 11 million Brits are in pain from using their home office equipment. Are your neck and back feeling sore from hours of hunching over your laptop or answering emails in bed? Help is at hand. Here, an expert reveals how you can instantly upgrade the safety of your home office.

The UK has been in lockdown since 23 March, and for many of us, that means we’ve been working from home for nearly two months now. 

And while remote working is the dream for most, being away from the office can take its toll, both physically and mentally. With so much uncertainty surrounding a date for when we will be allowed back to our workplaces, we want to do everything we can to ensure that our home offices are setup to support our bodies – after all, most of us won’t have the luxury of space and an ergonomically-friendly desk, chair and computer to work from during this time. 

In fact, 39% of those who sporadically worked from home before the pandemic said they didn’t have a dedicated workstation or desk at home, according to figures released by Leesman, the world’s leading independent authority on employee workplace experience, in March. And new research from Bupa UK has found that 18-34 year olds are the least likely age group to have a desk and a chair with a backrest, as well as being the age group that reports the highest levels of neck, hip, knee and wrist pain.

But understanding the basics of creating an effective workstation in our homes will enable us to protect our bodies from harm, such as a musculoskeletal injury (MSD). You may not have access to the ideal equipment, or want to fork out a lot of money to create the ultimate home office, so now is the time to get creative and adapt items that we already have at home, to ensure that we come out of this lockdown fighting fit.

Looking for some advice on where to get started? Here, Lillian Antonio, The Modern Ergonomist, shares her top tips to ensure that working from home can be done comfortably.  

Do you have neck and back pain from using your home office? The most important thing to remember is that comfort is key.

First things first: things to remember

The most important thing to remember is that comfort is key. Ensure you’re comfortable at your desk and that your body is in a neutral position. Your feet should be firm on the floor and your lower back supported. Sit back in your chair and use the backrest. Your shoulders should be relaxed, with your arms by your side and not reaching forwards. 

Where possible, raise your screen up to eye level to prevent slouching and upper back pain. This will help to reduce the likelihood of injury, such as neck pain and headaches, lower back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Climbing back into bed or curling up on the sofa to check your emails may seem like a good idea at the time, but staying in awkward postures for extended periods can lead to injury. Think about the tasks you need to complete and to keep your mind active consider moving locations throughout the day. There are probably a few different places in the house that you could work from. 

Set up a dedicated working area that’s free from distraction – this will not only help you concentrate throughout the day, but also allow you to finish work at the end of the day and disconnect.

The chair

If you have an office chair at home, great! Do you know how to adjust it? Many people sit for hours every day on a chair they haven’t fitted to their bodies, so make sure your chair is at a comfortable height and the backrest is supporting your lower back.

How do you know it’s at the correct height? When sitting, your feet should be firm on the floor and your hips slightly higher than your knees.

Don’t have an office chair at home? No problem. If you’re using a dining chair, you may need to use cushions to support your back and raise you up to the correct position. You can use a rolled-up towel in your lower back to create a lumbar support – position this in the natural curve of your lower back to provide comfortable pressure, rather than force you into an awkward posture. Try not to lean forwards as this increases the pressure in your lower back.

Sitting on the sofa? Keep this to a minimum, as the short-term comfort won’t be worth it in the long run!

The desk, table or countertop

At work, your desk will be around 73cm high. Now you’re at home, if you’re using your dining table, it’s likely to be around 3cm higher. This might not sound like much, but it can have a big impact on your posture and aggravate shoulder tension. 

To get set up correctly, sit on your chair at the table. Can you sit with your arms at a right angle by your side, forearms about 2cm above the table? If not, get some cushions underneath you to raise you up. Are your feet still firm on the floor? If not, you need a footrest or a box to keep them supported. 

Make use of your kitchen counter to create a standing workstation. Use this space for quick emails or phone calls to keep you moving throughout the day. 

home office
Make sure you take time away from your computer to reduce eye strain.

The laptop

The majority of us will now be working from a laptop at home, but doing this for long periods can very quickly lead to neck strain. Did you know that the average head weighs a whopping 4.5kg? 

To get set up correctly at home you need to get your hands on a separate keyboard and mouse – both can be brought fairly cheaply. You can then use a laptop riser if you have one or you can improvise with a pile of books (cookbooks work well!) or a shoebox, to raise your laptop up to eye level. When you look straight ahead, your eyes should be looking at the top third of the screen. This will make a huge difference to your posture and help to prevent slouching and reduce neck pain. 

When you look straight ahead, your eyes should be looking at the top third of the screen of your laptop.

Movement during the day

Finally, remember to move around regularly. This is really important, especially when working from home.

Most of us will have lost our morning and evening commutes, which may have involved walking even a short distance. Over time, your body will miss this regular movement. If you usually work in an open plan office, then you are probably used to many distractions throughout the day that you won’t experience at home. Make sure you take time away from your computer to reduce eye strain – I recommend around five to 10 minutes every hour. Set a reminder if you need to, and don’t feel guilty about it! Take a lunch break to get outside and go for a walk, even if it’s just around the block. You’ll be surprised by how much this can boost your energy levels and productivity in the afternoon. 

Things to remember

Remember that the aim is to ensure you’re comfortable and that your body is in a neutral position. I cannot stress enough that your feet should be firm on the floor and your lower back should be supported. Sit back in the chair, use the backrest. Your shoulders should be relaxed, with your arms by your side and not reaching forwards. Where possible raise your screen up to eye level to prevent slouching and upper back pain. And MOVE regularly throughout the day!

This feature was originally published on 8 April 2020

Lillian Antonio, The Modern Ergonomist, is offering webinars and remote workstation assessments, through an online form and video conference follow up, to ensure workforces are sitting and working comfortably throughout this period. This is especially important if there is already an existing musculoskeletal condition, back or neck pain. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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