Working from home in awkward spaces, without professional office equipment like ergonomic chairs and desks, has been quite literally a pain in the neck – and back. According to the Institute of Employment studies (IES) in March 2020, 71% of people were working from home. Of those, more than half (58%) reported aches and pains in their neck, 56% in their shoulders, and 55% in their back. Knee pain and hip pain were reported by 48% and 47% of respondents.
Although people are beginning to return to workplaces in person, hybrid-working is increasingly common - and the problems picked up at home aren’t just disappearing overnight.
Versus Arthritis puts the number of people in the UK living with a musculoskeletal issue at more than 20 million, including arthritis or lower back pain. It will affect 1 in 10 working age people, and means millions of working days are lost each year. That cost UK businesses an estimated £2.58 billion in 2017 and is projected to cost £3.43 billion by 2030.
The personal impact is also huge. Living with back pain takes a toll on mental health - with people suffering from persistent pain more than twices as likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Looking after your back, in short, is not something to put on the backburner. So what can you do to look after your musculoskeletal health when working from home?
1. Stop, look, listen, and think
It’s really easy to just carry on carrying on as normal - sitting down and cracking through your to do list. But it’s important to stop and take a look at your workspace. Do you have enough room? Is your screen at the right height without you looking up or down at it? Does your chair support your back? Are your feet resting properly on the floor?
Listen to your body and be aware of what it’s doing - and what it’s telling you. Making small adjustments - and even just thinking about your posture - can make a big difference.
2. Walk and talk
Take a break from video conferencing and take some good old-fashioned phone/conference calls! Not being stuck in front of your camera means you can get up, move around, and even go for a walk outside when you’re mostly listening in or catching up.
3. Take regular exercise breaks
Most people just aren’t moving enough, and inactivity is one of the biggest causes of back pain. If you can, arrange meetings to give yourself mini breaks away from your desk every 30 minutes or so, and set a timer when you’ve got your head down on a task as a reminder. Use the break to MOVE.
Sometimes you’ll just be popping to the loo or the kettle, but if you’ve been stuck in one position for any length of time it’s worth doing a bit more… You certainly don’t need to do a full HIIT workout - but a few star jumps and/or stretches can really help ease and prevent muscle and joint pain.
In fact, exercising more is generally good for keeping your back strong! The NHS suggest 150 minutes of exercise a week, with things like swimming, walking and yoga being really good options for back-care.
3. Stand up for yourself
Standing up is the new sitting down – and standing desks are increasingly popular, with online searches going up by 20% over the pandemic. What’s more, it’s been proven that alternating between sitting and standing during your working day isn’t just good for your spine, it also makes you more productive and happier.
5. Get some assistance
The Institute of Employment Studies found that 3 out of 4 people working from home had not had their home workspace health and safety checked by their employer.
By law, employers should be protecting workers from the health risks of working with display screen equipment (DSE) like computers, tablets, laptops and smart phones. Ask for an assessment and see if you can get desk or chair upgrades if you think you need them.
6. Nip problems in the bud
If your neck, back, knees or hips are starting to twinge and creak, don’t ignore them. Nipping problems in the bud early can stop them from becoming more serious or recurring issues. If you’ve got an Equipsme plan you’ve got access to physiotherapy sessions as part of your benefits. Find out more about how to make an appointment with a local provider here.
7. Remember back basics
The NHS says that most back pain usually clears up within a few weeks, but recommends moving more, using hot and cold packs as needed - and taking an anti-inflammatory painkiller like Ibuprofen as needed too.
If your pain is severe or increasing, or coming in combination with any other symptoms, it’s time to take it to your GP.