COVID-19 and Working From Home

What you need to consider by a Physiotherapist
Written by Scott Gentle
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 10, 2022

Are you suffering from pain or injury since you started working from home? In this article, I dive into some of the things you can do to avoid and treat pain related to working from home.

COVID-19 has thrown a spanner into the works in more ways than we could have imagined!

Who would've thought just a few short months ago, we would be sitting in a position where the global workforce has had to adapt and change its approach to business?

Working from home (WFH) used to be a rarity, with only a select few companies offering it as an option. Now, more than 60 per cent of the Australian workforce is operating from home, with many having less than ideal conditions.

And while Covid-19 has been the backbone (no pun intended) to this WFH trend, it doesn’t look like things are about to change any time soon.

Young professional working from home in their office set-up

As a physiotherapist in the Northern Suburbs of Sydney, I've found myself treating more and more people complaining of "working from home" injuries. From sore lower backs to stiff necks, there seems to be an array of complaints stemming from this new paradigm.

The top 5 working from home related injuries I’m treating

  • Lower back pain

  • Neck pain

  • Headaches

  • Shoulder pain

  • Wrist pain

I'm a big believer in preventative care, which prompted me to put together this article explaining some of the things you can do to improve your workplace setup and avoid coming to see me.

Firstly, let's look at how we have gone in adapting to this newfound normal.

The question is, are people adjusting to WFH?

So what does this mean for most people? Although workplaces have had to allow for more flexibility, the reality is everything that used to be face-face is now via phone or video conference.

  • Walking to and from buses/trains has been replaced by a roll-out of bed straight to the computer.

  • When you used to walk down the hall to ask your colleague about his questionable email, now you call.

  • When you used to walk downstairs to your third meeting for the day, now you call.

  • Need a drink of water? The kitchen used to be 50m away, and now it's 5!

You can see the impact working from home has had on incidental exercise.

If the goal is 10000 steps a day, you would assume with all of the above activities at least half of them are accounted for within your typical day.

What does the research say about working from home?

Early research shows a bit of a mixed bag. Firstly, the positives;

  • Less commute time

  • More flexible working arrangements

  • Extra time with families

  • More time for exercise.

In the context of health, these should spell out excellent outcomes for people. However, there are some negative associations with working from home:

  • Poor workplace setup

  • Inadvertently working longer hours

  • Less movement throughout the day

  • Less social interaction

  • Increased stress and anxiety with uncertainty around employment.

Some simple tips to improve your working from home experience

So what should we do about it? Well, it is vital to have a discussion with your employer about what is expected of you when working from home.

Responsibilities of your employer

Firstly though, here are some primary responsibilities of your employer when working from home:

  • There will need to be clear distinctions between work-related activities and home life.

  • A clear understanding of working hours, included breaks and how working from home will affect this.

  • Workstation set up needs to be ergonomically appropriate, either provide the right information to ensure adequate setup or organise a professional ergonomic assessment within the home space.

What can you do as an employee?

Ultimately, your health and well-being is your responsibility. We make 35000 conscious decisions every day, and we must make as many of them as positive as possible.

Let's address the negatives regarding working from home and discuss the solution to them.

What is ergonomics?

Firstly, let’s discuss ergonomics. It’s a word I’m sure you've heard hundreds of times before, if not thousands of times, but do you really know what it means? Ergonomics is the process by which workplaces and products are arranged to fit the people using them. Ergonomics assesses a variety of factors to achieve the best outcome.

Why are ergonomics important?

According to Safework Australia, the Australian government will spend almost $60 billion on work-related injuries and illnesses, with lower back pain being the most common cause of absence from work.[1] The goal in ergonomics is to achieve comfortable, safe and efficient work spaces.

Ergonomics is governed by five main principles:

  • Anthropometry - variations in body size and shape

  • Applied psychology - learning, skills and errors

  • Biomechanics - levers, muscles, and force

  • Environmental physics - light, temperature, noise and sensations

  • Social psychology - communication, groups and behaviours

Let’s discuss further the role of ergonomics specifically in working from home.

How to set up your new workstation when WFH for perfect ergonomics

Start with ensuring your work environment is appropriate. Clear your spare bedroom/study/dining room table of all unnecessary clutter.

If you haven't completed an ergonomic assessment before, it can seem daunting. But there are a few key things to keep in mind. Let's go through my top tips.

Tip #1: Get a good chair

Whether you like it or not, you're probably going to spend several hours a day parked in this chair, so make sure it's comfortable. Chairs with wheels are preferable as they allow you to be dynamic and move around more freely. Make sure your feet can touch the ground and that your thighs are well supported.

Tip #2: Check the basics

  • Your screen should be directly in front of you, and roughly an arm's length away.

  • You should have your elbows comfortably resting on the desk, at 90 degrees.

  • Your keyboard and mouse should have plenty of space and be in front of you with no clutter around them.

  • Make sure your feet are on the floor, use a footstool if you are on the short side.

If you are unsure or need further assistance from your employer, ask them to help you complete an ergonomic assessment template which is a bit more detailed. Speak to your employer about any new equipment that you may require.[2]

Tip #3: Vary your posture

Research on posture shows that there is no "perfect posture" that we should all adopt. What makes the most significant difference, however, is regular changes in posture. Stand up, shake it out and move all day! Sit to stand desks can be quite useful for this reason, allowing you to work from different positions. Stand up desks have been the rage - well before Covid-19 hit. The great thing is, they’re becoming even more portable and cost-effective. Check out Officeworks who have a wide range of options to suit most budgets.[3]

A new type of work / life balance

When Benjamin Franklin said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail" I'm sure he wasn't talking about working from home; however, it is certainly relevant in today's context.

Think about how you will plan your day. Will you start work earlier before the kids are awake? Will you start later after the school drop off? Can your husband or wife do the grocery shopping during the week? Once your boss and you come up with a plan around timing, make sure it is agreed upon and confirmed. Stick to the program and create clear boundaries around your time.

Exercise while working from home = yes it can be done!

For most people, exercise will usually get pushed to the bottom of the priority list, but it doesn't need to. There are many ways you can incorporate exercise into your day without it being burdensome. The most exciting part about working from home is you can be creative about how you exercise.

The concept of micro-workouts is gaining traction as an alternative to traditional training. The idea being you do small bursts of exercise throughout the day, rather than an hours training session all at once. You can do ten squats every time you walk to the kitchen, or you can do ten burpees when you finish an email. This "micro-workout" concept is hugely popular and will yield surprising benefits at the end of the day.

Other ways to incorporate exercise easily into your day is through layering. Layering means killing two birds with one stone. If you have a team call to listen to, perhaps you could put your headphones on and walk during the meeting. Need to catch up with a colleague, why not organise a walk somewhere outdoors. These are just some examples of layering, and you can choose to layer whatever works for you!

Productivity research shows evidence that most people can only concentrate on a task for 50 minutes (maximum) before getting distracted. Use that to your advantage, set the alarm for every 45 mins and take a quick break. It may just be to grab a drink of water or check the mail, but that break will help you. The few minutes of mental relaxation allows the brain to reset and come back to the task at hand refreshed and ready to go.

Why it is important to have social interaction when WFH

One of the most challenging components of lockdown for most people is the inability to see their friends and family. Psychologists recognise that human touch is so important for people in regulating emotion and making connections.

Again, we need to be creative here. The idea of layering tasks, as discussed before, can also help with social interaction. Try and organise a weekly walk with a different friend or relative each time.

We might all be sick of video conferencing and phone calls but perhaps make some time to make a personal call weekly as well. It may only be 10 minutes, but that call could light up the person on the other end of the phone!

People often ask, is stress and anxiety related to WFH?

Stress and anxiety are probably the hardest of all five points to manage and understand. All of us are faced with various levels of uncertainty, and it feels like none of it is our fault or in our control. It is easy to spiral down that rabbit hole and be filled with resentment and anger. Stoic philosophy has the best approach to this situation which is to focus on our reaction, not the problem. "We don't control what happens; we only control how we respond."

In light of this, we should aim to do a few simple things to try and reduce our stress and anxiety:

  1. Sleep well

  2. Exercise regularly

  3. Maintain healthy food choices

  4. Use breathing exercises as a tool to calm us down.

If we take some of these simple steps, it won't remove the trigger for anxiety, but it will undoubtedly help us control our response.

Here are some great exercises to prevent pain when working from home

By following some of the steps I've outlined above you will have a better WFH experience. Nevertheless you will occasionally find, despite your best efforts, that you will have pain.

Having a few exercises that you can do to help reduce pain can be useful.

Here are my favourites

1. Chin tucks

Sit up nice and tall, tuck your chin in, keeping your eyes level. Repeat five times.

2. Seated upper body rotations

Sit in your chair, hands crossed in front of you. Begin by rhythmically rotating from side to side, continuing for approximately 30 seconds.

3. Child's pose

You'll need to get on the floor for this one. Start on all fours, slowly sit back on your heels, allowing your back to curl and bend. Hold for 30 seconds.

4. Lower back rotations

Still on the floor, start with your knees bent up to 90 degrees. Begin by gently rocking your knees from side to side, whilst keeping your upper body fixed on the floor.

5. Arm lifts

This one is less of a stretch and more of a shake up of your posture. Whilst sitting, lift your arms up and down in the air relatively fast. Repeat this 10 times. You should be breathing a bit heavier with this exercise!

I hope that this article helps you to create a more positive work from home experience, and more importantly, helps you avoid seeing physiotherapists like me. If pain persists and you live in Sydney, come in for an initial appointment at our physio clinic in Hornsby, or book a time with a physiotherapist using BookPhysio.com.

Written by Scott Gentle
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Published on March 7, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 10, 2022
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Last medically reviewed on March 10, 2022
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