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SocietyApril 6, 2020

How to work from home without wrecking your back

High angle view of female entrepreneur concentrating on work while daughter playing at home office

Alex Casey talks to a physiotherapist about how we can all save our necks and backs from a world of pain while working from home during the lockdown. 

As we enter another week of lockdown, you might be starting to feel a new twinge at the nape of your neck, or a growing ache in your lower back. Working from home creates a whole new range of challenges and distractions, especially in the middle of a global crisis, and one of the last things on the priority list for many is taking care of your poor old posture. 

Because it’s too late to drive to the mall to buy a posh standing desk, or march into the physio and plop yourself down on the table to have a whinge, I called Caitlin Day, physiotherapist and owner of Unity Studios, for some tips on how we can avoid wrecking our backs in our home offices.

1. No working from the couch or bed

It may seem like delicious lockdown treat to work from the comforts of your bed, but do not be lured in by the siren calls of your duvet and pillows. “The couch or your bed is actually the worst place that you could spend a significant amount of time sitting in because they are ergonomically designed to make you slouch,” says Day. “It’s really tempting, because they are comfortable for the short term, but don’t do it.” 

2. Stick to what you know

Your set-up at home should be a similar configuration to whatever you have at work, whether it is a standing desk or a ye olde sitting desk. “My suggestion would be that if you don’t have an office desk but you have a dining table and chairs, use that,” says Day. “If you are using a laptop, get a separate keyboard and a mouse and prop the laptop up on a couple of books to make it eye level. That aligns your head to be looking straight forward as opposed to slouching down.” 

This is not a standing desk

3. Take a stand (for your posture)

If you prefer to stand while you work, you can recreate a standing desk using a pile of books on a kitchen bench or even atop a humble ironing board. “Anything that is waist or hip height and can handle a computer set up should work,” says Day. 

4. Work with what you’ve got

If you missed your window of opportunity to rush out and panic buy a bunch of ergonomic whatchamacallits, fear not! The humble bath towel is here to help. “Roll it up like a sausage, shove your bottom right back in the chair and shove the towel right down along the belt line between the chair and the back,” suggests Day. “That’s essentially a lumbar roll which will support your lower back and help you to sit a little bit taller in your chair.” 

5. Move your body, every every body

Day reckons that sitting is the new smoking and “motion is lotion”, which seems a bit Buffalo Bill-esque, but I guess he did love to dance. “Even if you have a good set-up, it is still not recommended to sit for longer than 30 minutes. Our spines love to move – that’s why there’s such a high rate of back and neck pain in office workers.” She suggests setting a timer on your phone to go off every 30 minutes, and taking that time to stand-up, stretch, do a little dance etc. 

6. Find your angles

If you are plopped in a chair right now, take a moment to think about the angles of your hips and knees. “Ideally you want a 90 degree bend in your hips and a 90 degree bend in your knees,” says Day. “If you can, prop your feet up with books underneath them or sit on something like a cushion on the chair if you need to make it a bit higher.” 

Correct dog, incorrect knee angle

7. Stretch, stretch, stretch

The key hot spots you are going to want to stretch are the hip flexors, the neck and the lower back, says Day. “Usually with back pain, exercises need to be individualised because people often need to work on different things, but there are YouTube videos to work on all of those areas in the meantime, and they are pretty easy to get the hang of.” 

8. Don’t burn your bra… for now

As bra-wearers across the country fling their boob cages off, ready to enjoy four weeks of free-boobing bliss, Day issues a warning: “Look, I’m all about freeing the boobs, but if you’ve got particularly big ones you might want to keep wearing your bra, because they can bring your centre of gravity forward and make you slouch again.” 

9. Take up yoga and/or pilates

If you have found yourself less active, or have less access to the ways you like to exercise, Day recommends getting into pilates or yoga through an online class, a service which she offers from her studio. “There is a lot of research to suggest that pilates and yoga is exactly what people with back pain need, because its a combination of core strengthening and stretching. If you are feeling sore, I’d say you should get into pilates or yoga sooner rather than later.”

10. Don’t try to fix it yourself

Whatever you do, don’t enlist the help of some well-meaning person in your bubble to crack you back. “I would strongly advise against that, because if something does go terribly wrong, the last thing the health system needs right now is more people filling up the hospital beds,” Day warns. Physiotherapists are still available for consults via video – don’t take the risk just because your flatmate likes to walk along people’s spines for a laugh.

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