When your home office is the bed, kitchen table, couch, or floor

The pandemic and self-mandated quarantines have had far-reaching consequences, affecting the way we work and socialize. Many of us have said goodbye to our shared workspaces, ergonomic chairs, and gym memberships. We’ve questioned and weighed the need to visit our physical therapist or chiropractor and put off getting a massage because of social distancing concerns. Even though a number of businesses have reopened and quarantines rules have relaxed, many people who can, choose to work remotely.

Our WFH setups have been cobbled together based on living situations and need for ready comfort during these turbulent times. While each of us have managed in our own way, we’ve come to the realization that work from home is really hard. We’ve substituted in-person interactions for Zoom video calls, Slack chats, contactless delivery services, video games, virtual fitness classes, and a relentless stream of social media.

WFH is hard on our backs

We work and conduct calls while sitting cross-legged, scrunched up, or splayed out across our bed, couch, or floor. Even with a proper desk and comfy chair, we barely get up when faced with back-to-back video meetings. Zoom fatigue sets in. We promise ourselves we’ll get more active by investing in home gym equipment and outdoor exercise.

With our dependence on technology and lack of ergonomic options, we’re feeling the negative consequences. In its assessment of long-term risks associated with COVID-19, the World Economic Forum noted that working remotely will lead to “bad backs through poor ergonomic posture.” And years before the current pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed that back-related pain contributed to an estimated $100 to $200 billion in annual costs in the US alone. 

Tech use has become a crutch

Based on pre-pandemic research in JAMA, the average US adult spends 6.5 hours a day sitting while the average teenager spends 8 hours a day sitting. Measurement company Zenith reported in 2019 that the average American adult spends 3.5 hours looking down on their smartphone.

Since the global pandemic hit, broadband Internet usage has shot up 47%. Zoom went from 10 million participants in December to 300 million participants this April. Video game usage spiked with Nielsen reporting that the US saw a 45% increase, followed by France 38%, UK 29%, and Germany 20%. Social media platforms have reported record usage with Facebook achieving its largest gains to date. 

Technology is now the main source of what connects us to our loved ones, our colleagues, and to the outside world.

We’ve developed new postures

A well known maker of ergonomic office products, Steelcase, conducted a posture study that found smartphones and tablets have significantly changed our postures. “With devices in hand, people shift between tasks and devices, creating unprecedented variability in postures. Researchers determined that many of the postures driven by the new smaller devices were causing pain and contributing to unhealthy stresses and strains on the body.”

How to battle “tech neck” and WFH posture

Photo credit: Kinflyte
Wearables like a posture top can promote a neutral spine position.

While we may feel tethered to our devices, there are basic ways we can support a healthier posture.

  1. Maintain a neutral spine position whether standing or sitting. Experts in physical therapy suggest visualizing your alignment by imagining a thread in the back of the skull pulling your head towards the ceiling. There are specialized wearable clothing (e.g. posture tops, posture bras) and other types of posture aids for seated support (e.g. seat cushions, foot rests) designed to promote body awareness and encourage a neutral position.
  2. Avoid sitting hunched forward. When you’re multitasking with your devices, it seems almost instinctive to stoop and sit in a flexed position. This position constricts your breathing by decreasing lung capacity, and places pressure on your spine to curve forward, pushing your head and neck in an awkward position. Instead, try and sit in a neutral position, maintaining your knees, hips and elbows at a 90-degree angle to your spine.
  3. Pay attention to your body. If you feel any discomfort or pain, readjust how you are sitting. Avoid holding your body in the same position for prolonged periods of time, as it can place unnecessary strain and stress on those overextended areas of your body.
  4. Get up and move around frequently. It’s important to give your body regular breaks, and frequent movement can help you reset your posture. It’s also important to engage in regular exercise activities (e.g. yoga, pilates) that can help you improve your flexibility, and strengthen your core and muscle strength.
  5. Keep your devices at eye level – that goes for your computer, smartphone, and tablet. Look down with your eyes, but not with your neck. Take regular breaks to avoid eye strain as well as strain on your body.

While our reliance on technology is here to stay, we can create a better ergonomic setup and establish habits that counter the negative aspects of remote work.