Work From Home Tips: A Physiotherapist's Guide

Has COVID-19 thrown you head first into a work from home situation? Now, instead of rocking up to a well designed workplace, are you slumped over a kitchen table with your laptop lumped on a stack of random books?

Who would've thought just a few short months could result in the profound shift we've seen in the global workforce. This tiny virus has grasped the future and wrenched it into the here and now. And while there are many wonderful benefits, the sudden transition has caused a range of very human problems.

So if you are experiencing work from home back pain, neck soreness, headaches, shoulder pain or wrist pain, you're not alone. And I'm so glad you're here!

In this article, I dive into the potential benefits of WFM (it’s not all doom and gloom), some of the hiccups that come with a work from home set-up (and how to fix these), and easy, actionable work from home tips so you can physically and psychologically flourish in these interesting times.

Working from home covid ergonomics

The Work From Home Shift

Work from home, or because us Aussies love a good nickname "WFH", used to be a rarity. Only a few select companies offered it as an option. But since COVID-19 struck there has been massive change. A Roy Morgan survey revealed that 4.3 million people, that’s almost one in three Australians, now call their home their office. If you're in the communications, public administration and defence or the finance and insurance industries, that jumps to around a one in two chance.

While the idea of sleep-ins, redundant commutes and leisurely picking the kids up from school may sound like bliss, the sudden nature has resulted in poor planning and less than ideal conditions. Pain and anxiety have spiked. Yes, COVID-19 has been the backbone (pun intended) of this WFH trend but it doesn’t look like there will be a reversal to our pre-COVID days any time soon.

The Top 5 Work From Home Related Injuries

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

The top five WFH-related injuries that are walking (often tentatively) into my consultation rooms are:

It’s no wonder when we're sat hunched at an improvised desk, our spines and limbs contorted and unsupported, for hours on end!

But there is hope. I'm a big advocate for preventative care. As the old saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.” My patients find much needed respite by applying the evidence-based, easy-to-implement advice I'm about to share with you. That’s what prompted me to write this article... because if you’re here, there's a good chance you or someone you care for is doing it tough.

But just before I jump into my work from home checklist and guidelines, let's look at the pros and cons of our new normal.

What Does the Research Say About Working From Home?

Early research shows a mixed bag. There is much still to learn but I always like to start with the positives:

Work From Home: The Negatives

But although workplaces now have to allow for greater flexibility, the reality of WFH is not all roses and kittens. Working from home has culled everyday movement and transformed how we interact (and not always in a good way)…

As you can see, the impact working from home has on incidental exercise is substantial. Previously a 10,000 steps-a-day goal was ticked off, in part, by the above activities. Now it takes planning and dedication.

Other than reduced incidental exercise, a work from home set-up can bring with it other negative impacts. In my practice, I've seen these four particular challenges decrease the wellbeing of my patients:

Are You Inadvertently Working Longer Hours?

It's so easy to get caught up in effectively being on call. After all, in our digital world and in a WFH era, the tools of the work trade are right at our fingertips; computer, email, phone. A Roy Morgan survey found that when Aussies work from home, the majority find switching off tricky. Setting work aside becomes difficult. This is terrible for our work-life balance. If your inner voice is screaming, "What balance?!", listen! It's time to set — and stick to — boundaries.

Has Your Sociability Diminished?

If you work with frustrating, loud or otherwise irritating colleagues, working from home might feel (and sound) like blissful solace. And it may be. But diminished social interaction can harm your health. We are, at our core, social creatures. If your new work situation has stripped your communal engagement, seek connection elsewhere.You might find that actual or Zoom dates with friends and chatting with loved one often is enough to soothe your social soul.

Worried About Work and Your Future?

One constant with our COVID-inspired work from home world seems to be its ever changing nature. This can be extremely difficult, especially if it eats into security around your employment and future. If you are finding chronic stress and its bedfellows, anxiety and depression, difficult, The Black Dog Institute has some advice:

  1. Set up a workday routine and structure

  2. Set boundaries between work and home

  3. Settle on a workspace (not in your bedroom: that's for sleep)

  4. Stay connected to your co-workers

  5. Switch off technology in the evenings

  6. See nature, every day

  7. Seek the silver linings

Is Your Workplace Set-up Hurting You?

Workplace set-up is a biggie. The great news is that with the right advice and equipment you can swap work from home back pain for comfort and ease, horrible headaches and neck pain for pain-free poise and shoulder and wrist soreness can become a long forgotten memory from the past. To do this, we need to discuss something called ergonomics.

What is Ergonomics?

Firstly, let’s discuss ergonomics! You've probably heard the terms hundreds of times, but do you know what it means?

Ergonomics is the holistic process by which workplaces and products are arranged to safely fit and support the people that use them. Ergonomics assesses a variety of factors to achieve the best outcome.

Why is Ergonomics Important?

In short, because it protects you from injury and pain. 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. The goal in ergonomics is to achieve comfortable, safe and efficient workspaces.

Ergonomics is governed by 5 main principles:

Let’s discuss the role of ergonomics in working from home. Why? Because the benefits of a well thought out and implemented ergonomic set-up will reduce, even eliminate pain, and improve your wellbeing.

How Can You Set-up Your WFH Workstation With Ergonomics in Mind?

Start with the basics: a decluttered space is key. Remove all unnecessary belongings and distractions.

Now, 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 work from home checklist...

Tip #1: Choose a good chair

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 move around freely. Make sure your feet can touch the ground (or use a foot stool), that your thighs and lumbar curve are well supported, and that your ankles, knees and hips can each rest at approximately 90 degrees.

Tip #2: Check the basics

There are basic ergonomics rules you should follow...

You'll find a Workstation ergonomics self-assessment here. It's a great free resource that will help you get your ergonomic set-up right.

Tip #3: Vary your posture

Research on posture shows us that there is no "perfect posture" we should all adopt, all the time. What makes the most significant difference is regular changes in posture. Stand up, shake it out and move as often as is possible. That's why sit to stand desks can be great; they allow you to work from a couple of positions. Stand up desks became all 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.

Work from home tip: It is vital to communicate with your employer. They have a responsibility to keep you safe when you are at work, even if the definition of "at work" has changed rather dramatically.

Once your workstation is ergonomically designed and your workspace is safe, it's time to expand that mindset...

A New Type of Work-Life Balance

Safety and ease aren't limited to how and where you sit. While these are important aspects, along with body balance you need a focus on 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, his comment is certainly relevant in today's context.

Think about how you will plan your day. Will you begin earlier, before the kids are awake? Will you start later, after school drop off? Can your husband or wife do the grocery shopping during the week? How can you structure your day so you remain productive and pain-free?

Once you and your boss agree on a plan, stick to the program and create clear boundaries around your time.

How to Exercise While Working From Home?

Great, so you're prepared for the potential pitfalls of work from home. You now know how to ergonomically design your workstation. You're prepared to structure a work-life balance. But what about exercising in this new world?

For many people, exercise gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. This is a big mistake and is simply not necessary. There are many ways to incorporate physical activity into your every day without it being burdensome. The most exciting part about working from home is that you can be creative about how you exercise.

The magic of micro-workouts

The concept of micro-workouts is gaining traction as an alternative to traditional training. The idea being that you do small bursts of exercise throughout the day, rather than an hour long training session. You can perform ten squats every time you walk to the kitchen. Or ten burpees when you finish an email. This micro-workout concept is hugely popular and can yield surprising benefits.

The dual benefits of layering

Another way to easily incorporate exercise into your day is through a principle known as layering. Layering allows you to kill two birds with one stone. If you have a team call, perhaps put on your headphones and walk at the same time. Need to catch up with a colleague? Organise to do so during an outdoor walk.

The productivity hack for increased exercise

Productivity research is clear: most people can only concentrate on a task for up to 50 minutes before getting distracted. Use that to your advantage. Set your alarm for every 45 minutes. When it tolls, take a quick break. Get up and grab a glass. Check the mail. Perform ten star jumps. Hold a 30-second plank. Use this time to refresh your brain, relax your mind and sneak in a little physical activity.

Now that you have work from home guidelines for sneaking in additional physical activity, let's look at a work from home checklist for healthy social interaction.

Healthy Social Interaction In A Work From Home World

One of the most challenging components of lockdown is the inability to see colleagues, 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. Organise a weekly walk with a different friend or relative. Carve out time to place a personal phone calls regularly. Even ten minutes can make a difference for yourself and the person you talk to. Focus on connecting with others often.

Are Stress and Anxiety Related to WFH?

Stress and anxiety are two of the hardest work from home challenges. Most of us face various levels of uncertainty at this time; it can feel like nothing is in our control. This can, naturally, create stress and anxiousness. It is easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of resentment, anger, impatience and psychological strain. This won't help. We can instead choose to lean on the Stoic philosophy and focus on our reaction, not the problem: "We don't control what happens; we only control how we respond."

We can also incorporate stress busting steps...

  1. Prioritise restful sleep

  2. Exercise regularly

  3. Maintain healthy food choices

  4. Use breathing exercises as tools to calm us down

  5. Practice mindfulness and meditation

These simple steps won't remove our triggers, but they can help us control and soften our responses.

As well as calming psychological strain, we can take steps to lessen, even prevent, physical pain when working from home.

How To Ease Physical Pain When Working From Home?

By following the steps I've outlined above you will be all set for a better work from home experience. Nevertheless, despite your best efforts, you may have pain. As a Physiotherapist, I've spent years helping patients recover from aches and ails. Here are five of my favourite pain-busting exercises!

1. Chin tucks. Sit up nice and tall, tuck your chin into your neck, keep your eyes level. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat five times.

2. Seated upper body rotations. Sit in your chair, hands crossed in front of your chest. Rhythmically and gently rotate from side to side. Continue for 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 while your hands remain in position. Allow your belly button to dip towards the ground. Hold for 30 seconds.

4. Lower back rotations. Still on the floor, lay on your back 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. Repeat gently while bracing your core. Continue for 30 seconds.

5. Arm lifts. This one is designed to shake up your posture. Whilst sitting, lift your arms up and down in the air relatively fast. Repeat this 10 times. This one might raise your breathing rate a little…

And relax!

Our new work from home world brings with it challenges and opportunities. While we can't change the underlying coronavirus itself, we can change how we respond to our unexpected situation. We can embrace the positives and actively work to mitigate the negatives. This information in this article will help you to do both. Creating a more positive work from home experience is possible. If pain persists and you live in Sydney, we'd love to support you. Book an appointment at our Physio in Hornsby. If you live elsewhere, you can book a time with a Physio using the Local Physio Network.

Written by Scott Gentle, Physiotherapist and Director at Butel Health Services.

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