While there are obvious perks to working from home – less time spent in traffic, more flexibility and quality time with family – swapping the office equipment designed to accommodate working needs for a sofa, kitchen table or bed has had a detrimental effect on the body.
In December 2019, before the first cases of Covid-19 were identified in China, South Africa’s Minister of Employment and Labour published the new Ergonomics Regulations in terms of the South African Occupational Health and Safety Act. They were adopted to create ergonomically safer workplaces to protect workers. But when offices closed due to the pandemic, our homes – and home furniture – became our workplaces.
‘I have treated patients complaining of increased pain as well as new-onset pain, mainly in the lower-back,’ says Dr Desiree Varatharajullu, Clinic Director of the Chiropractic Day Clinic at the Durban University of Technology.
‘In fact, a study on the psychological and musculoskeletal effects of lockdown published in the US Open Journal of Psychiatry & Allied Sciences in August this year found that an inactive lifestyle, sedentary behaviour, loneliness and social isolation were key contributors to musculoskeletal pain.’
Dr Varatharajullu believes that much of the musculoskeletal discomfort people have been experiencing could be attributed to ineffective work-from-home infrastructure – a view fully supported by Sethunya Matsie from the Ergonomics Institute of South Africa.
‘Those who are working from dining-room chairs, couches and beds may be exposed to ergonomic risks like staying in one position for too long and not moving often enough, and awkward postures, which are exacerbated by sitting on a chair with insufficient back support, having the incorrect computer set-up, or lying on a couch or bed while working.
‘These risks include contact stress, that is, typing with the palms resting on the hard lip of a keyboard tray or desk, resting the wrist on the edge of the desk/laptop while using your mouse, or sitting on a chair that places pressure on the back of the thighs or knees. And, of course, not taking enough breaks.’
'Repeat exposure to ergonomic risks may lead to the development of disorders and increased likelihood of injury.'
While some workers have started returning to their offices, there are many who are continuing to work from home, and it’s clear that inadequate office equipment and not having the right furniture at home could pose new health risks.
Urvashi Ramjee, Head of Claims Management at Old Mutual, says they expect to see a rise in the number of disability claims they receive as a result: ‘Those who are most at risk appear to be people who have pre-existing medical conditions or exacerbating lifestyle factors, such as previous injury or even obesity.
‘We encourage everyone to heed experts’ advice regarding the correct posture and equipment. Many medical schemes have back-and-neck programmes to help manage the symptoms, and it will be a good idea to find out whether yours has one that can help you to manage or possibly preempt injury.’
‘Repeat exposure to ergonomic risks,’ explains Matsie, ‘may lead to the development of disorders and increased likelihood of injury. Even contact stress, while you may think it harmless, can damage soft tissues and lead, over time, to a serious injury.’
Tips for avoiding back pain and poor posture while working from home
Dr Varatharajullu explains, ‘Maintaining a routine and keeping active will help to reduce musculoskeletal pain. Maintaining the correct posture when sitting at your desk, and taking regular breaks from your desk will help to limit pressure on the musculoskeletal system.’
Our bodies ache as an indication that we need movement, explains Adéle Pudney, a registered physiotherapist at AP Physiotherapists. ‘The aching is caused by a decrease in blood flow, an increase in waste-product build-up, and a decrease in oxygen and nutrients.’
Discomfort and aches tend to manifest more often in certain areas of the body. Here’s how to improve the blood and oxygen flow in each to relieve the pain./p>
If your neck and shoulders hurt
Causes: A lack of movement, poor ergonomic set-up, and insufficient oxygen in muscles.
Try: While you’re reading this, slowly tilt your head from side to side. Can you remain focused on the text and move your head at the same time? Shrug your shoulders up to your ears and drop them down again. Roll your shoulders backward in circles. Stand up and place a heat pack over your shoulders. The movement and the heat will assist with blood flow.
If your eyes feel fatigued
Causes: Various muscles control the eyes’ position and focus. When you are engaged in extended screen time, these muscles work overtime and get tired.
Try: Shift your focus away from the screen and look at something in the distance. This allows a different set of muscles to work. It could also help to adjust the backlight of your screen.
If your hips are tight
Causes: We hold a lot of tension in our hips, and sitting for long periods can also weaken the leg muscles.
Try: Make sure your chair is at the right height for your body and your desk. Squeeze/tighten your gluteal (buttock) muscles while sitting or standing. Stand up and gently swing one leg forward and backward. This increases the blood flow and loosens the joints. Don’t use your hands to push yourself up when getting up – use your legs to strengthen the muscles.
If your wrists hurt
Causes: The position of your wrists while you are typing or using a mouse can lead to stiffness and pain. Ideally, your knuckles should be slightly higher than your wrists.
Try: Take your hands off the keyboard as often as possible – stretch and move your wrists. Open and close your fingers a few times and lift your hands above your head for more effective blood flow. Squeeze a tennis ball.
If your back aches
Causes: The problem is more than likely alignment and tension. Check if your knees, bellybutton and shoulders are facing in the same direction. It is so easy for us to sit in a rotated position, which isn’t good for your joints. Notice the amount of tension/holding that happens in your back – check your breathing again. Are you holding your breath while tensing your back?
Try: Sit facing your workstation directly and ‘soften’ your lower back. Tilt your pelvis forward and backward – this will activate your abdominal muscles and stretch the muscles of the lower back. Leaning forward (touching your toes while sitting) will also help to increase flexibility. Get up and move around at least once every hour, preferably more.
This information is intended as a guideline only. If the pain persists, don’t hesitate to see your GP or a physiotherapist to get professional guidance and the appropriate support.
Group editor: Health, John Brown South Africa