Looking after the hard workers!

Have you ever thought about what you’d do if you didn’t have any hands?  So far today I’ve got out of bed, dressed, washed, made breakfast and had a couple of cups of coffee whilst going through my emails and starting my working day.  All of these activities involved using my hands and so it’s safe to say I’d be lost without them!

So, if that’s the case, why don’t we take more care of them?  As I’m writing this, I’m reaching for the handcream because I’ve just noticed they’re a little dry, but is that enough?

One of the biggest complaints people experienced since home working is wrist and hand pain and yet a few simple changes can make all the difference.  So what can you do:

  1. Consider your posture.  Yes, believe it or not, that does make a difference.  Sitting too low or slouching at your desk can mean that your hands are on a poor angle when working and this can put a lot of strain on them.  Raising yourself to the optimum level will ensure you hold your wrists well when working.
  2. Stretch regularly!  The internet is full of good exercises to help you stretch and strengthen your wrists.  A stressball can work as well too. 
  3. Get the right equipment.  A good keyboard and mouse can make a world of difference.  Whether it’s a keyboard with lighter keys or an ergonomic mouse, there is something to suit everyone in this area.
  4. And yes, giving your hands a rest and a little bit of pampering can make them feel a whole lot better too!

Stop Procrastinating!

I remember a time, not so long ago, I got in my car, and it crossed my mind that I hadn’t checked the oil in a while.  It was an old car, and it was something I had to do fairly often, but I was in a hurry, and I figured I’d be ok to check it when I had more time. Halfway to my destination, the oil light came on.  I was in the middle of nowhere and had no spare oil on me so all I could do was keep going, knowing that I was most likely causing damage to the engine and that it could cause it to cease at any moment.  Thankfully on that occasion, I got away with it – a petrol station came into sight, and I was able to pull over and buy some oil, however, my garage mechanic will be able to tell you that I wouldn’t have been the first person whose car engine had died because of simple neglect like this.

Our bodies are the same.  They need looking after!  Poor posture, small, repetitive movements, constricted movement for long periods of time, a fast pace of work, it all adds up.  Then there are the strains and stresses we put it through at home.  Even sitting on the sofa for hours has a price to it.  The fact is the list of strains we put on our bodies goes on and on!

Statistics taken by the HSE in 2020/21 indicate that of all the work-related ill health at the time, 28% of it was due to muscular-skeletal disorders:  back pain (39%), neck, shoulder and wrist/hand pain (45%), lower limbs pain (16%).  And all of these could have been caused by a combination of activities.

Despite all this, we’re not so good about adjusting our practices, or seeking help until the pain is too much and we can no longer manage it. 

“I can’t be bothered with all of that”, “I am ok, I don’t have any pain”, “I’ve worked like this for years and it’s never caused me any problems”, “I know how I should be sitting, and I don’t need the help”!  I think I’ve heard every excuse under the sun.

So why are we so often so reluctant to follow advice and adjust our practices?

I think one of the biggest issues is that people don’t always appreciate how much of an impact a muscular disorder can have on their life.  They’re not life-threatening and therefore people can assume that because they’re young, or they’re fit and healthy that they will be ok. 

The trouble is that the stress we cause to our bodies is accumulative, which means that the damage builds up slowly and we often don’t realise what damage has been done until it’s too late!  What starts off as a niggle can quickly develop into a major injury if ignored, at which point that injury requires medical intervention and painkillers.

For me, it was sudden.  One morning I went to get out of bed and found that I couldn’t put my foot down, the pain was so intense.  Years of thinking I was ok lifting heavy things, doing DIY (not very well!), playing squash (and not doing any other exercise, if I’m honest) plus a whole bunch of other things, all added up and my back had had enough.  It eventually meant the end of a career, which whilst an extreme consequence, is not unheard of in some cases.  The trouble is, I’d ignored the niggles and assumed I could keep going as I was, thinking that the pain would pass. It didn’t!

So, what should you do when you start experiencing these niggles.  Well, in the first instance, engaging in a review of working practices and home life can be enough for many people but, even if medical intervention is required, a full desk assessment will be invaluable in supporting any treatment and helping you to set yourself up in such a way as to prevent further injury.  Your workplace may offer this support inhouse, or you may prefer to contact me to discuss how I can help.

Are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin?

It was around three weeks into the first lockdown that people started to get concerned about the niggles they were starting to experience.  Initially able to ignore or manage them, people carried on working assuming that lockdown would not be for that long after which they’d return to the office as normal, and all would be well.  And so, they put off seeking any help.  The trouble is, more often than not, any pain is a warning sign of something going wrong and ignoring it only means it will develop.

Before the end of that first lockdown, the effect of sitting on the sofa or bed, huddled over a laptop started to be felt.  As nice as working in bed may sound, our bodies are not designed for it.  Hunching over a small laptop, staring at a small screen, and having no arm support and a keyboard at the wrong height for typing doesn’t do anyone any good.

Couple this with the fact that a recent survey has shown that 46% of people admitted to being less active than normal.  Whether a commute is walked or driven, the fact is in the office we’re more likely to get up to make a drink, go to see someone for a meeting or a chat or have some other reason to move, that we don’t have at home.

At the end of April 2020, the Institute of Employment Studies carried out research for home workers during the first lockdown to track employee wellbeing patterns.  They found that of all those surveyed 58% complained of newly developed neck pain and 55% of back pain.

More recent surveys have shown other key factors affecting healthy working have also deteriorated.  According to the Royal Society for Public Health there was a 30% increase in disturbed sleep and 67% of people felt less connected to colleagues. 

The trouble is it’s often accumulative and the aches and pains of today can reflect the bad practices of the past. Not that it’s ever too late to act. Sometimes the smallest of changes can make the biggest difference.

So, what should you do?  Well, there are two main actions that you need to take:  firstly get off that sofa and go and sit at the dining room table, raise your laptop onto a laptop stand, or better still purchase a monitor, get hold of a separate keyboard and mouse and a proper office chair, and you will be sitting in a much better position.  If that doesn’t sound feasible, since the start of lockdown there have been a number of solutions that have popped up on the market in recognition of the space issue people have struggled with and you could consider some of these.

Secondly, get up and get moving.  The usual recommendation is that you change position every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds, during which time you take your eyes off your screen to give them a break.  If that doesn’t sound possible, get creative – can you get up and walk when you’re on the phone? Could you move your laptop to a kitchen worktop for a few minutes rather than sitting still?  There are usually ways around this.

Whether you decide to go all out with your desk set up or to just make minimal changes, given that home working seems to be here to stay, it’s time to invest in yourself and that way you’ll be able to enjoy many more comfortable years working at your desk.

Reflections on lockdown home working

Let’s go back to 23 March 2020 and Boris announced that the country would take the unprecedented step of going into lockdown to combat Covid 19.  Two days later this came into effect, and we all started working from home.

For many, this was all very new, and they weren’t set up for it, and so they got creative!

Some people moved house to something big enough to hold an office, others recommissioned spare bedrooms, corners of living rooms, children’s bedrooms – you name it, they did it!  One gentleman I spoke to was sitting in the utility room working by the back door.  It was the only place that he could get a good wifi signal that wasn’t in the way of his family, another individual was perched on a barstool, working at a kitchen surface whilst his family had use of the rest of the house.

People sat in bed or on sofa’s, often propped up by pillows, they wedged themselves in at children’s desks.  For those who didn’t want to have their laptop on their lap, they worked from coffee tables, dressing tables, dining tables and even little picnic tables.  The most uncomfortable seat that I came across was someone who was sitting on their child’s high chair (they were petite, so that’s probably why they got away with it, but still it was cramped!).

People adapted anyway they could, and everyday objects took on a whole new purpose as they became tools for working at home!

Perhaps the most creative and, indeed, ingenious solution was the ironing board!  With the ability to raise it up to its highest settings it proved to be a good alternative to sitting at a desk all day and was also very handy for video conferencing.  It is amazing how many people have found this to be a useful solution to some of their issues.

As a Workplace and Ergonomics Consultant working during lockdown, we’ve not always been able to recommend the equipment we usually would, and instead, we’ve had to be creative in recommending solutions.  We’ve seen the creation of cardboard desks (both sitting and standing versions) and ergonomic cushions being just two possible options. 

Of course, a desk, monitor, keyboard, mouse and office chair will always be the best set up for any office worker, and I would recommend anyone looking to work at home permanently to find a way to fit these in, however, this season has shown that there are alternatives.