We have all dreamt of this for years—the ability to work from home, meaning no long commutes, endless meetings, or burnt-industrial strength coffee. Thanks to the on-going pandemic and the threat of infection while travelling, organizations are allowing their employees to work from home rather than office cubicles. In fact, many new-age firms are also thinking of pivoting to a full or hybrid Work from Home model in the long run.
However, is this new norm really a win-win situation for the employee?
While remote work did provide employees with some respite by allowing them to spend more time with their families, there have been other hidden health consequences, especially concerning their back and neck.
We caught up with Dr Kapendra Mouli, MBBS, MS-Orthopedics to understand the potential health issues associated with work from home and how you can avoid and treat them.
The whole country has been working from home since the last few months. In such a scenario, have you seen an increase in the number of certain types of medical issues?
Yes, there has mainly been an increase in the number of patients suffering from health issues like spondylitis, lower back and neck pain, muscle aches and slip disc among others.
That’s interesting, why do you think this is happening?
The two primary reasons that cause these issues are bad posture and inappropriate workspace. When working from home, it’s easy to slouch and sit with a bad posture. Often employees are tempted to work from their couch or bed, and sometimes their dining room chair—all of these don’t provide the same support as an office chair, thereby putting much pressure on their neck and lower back.
On the other hand, a few people who sit cross-legged on the floor and work end up developing knee pain as well.
When it comes to females, they tend to do much of housework that includes lifting weights and other stuff for a longer period of time, which results in disc-related health issues.
What does a bad posture do to our body?
You were probably told by your mom and teachers to sit up or stand up straight as a child. They were right when they said, if you stay like that long enough, it will get stuck that way.
A poor posture such as slumping your shoulders or slouching not only looks bad but can also have adverse effects on your overall health.
The first detrimental effect of a bad posture is a misaligned spine. An upright spine is not naturally straight. There are three essential spine curves—one in your upper-to-mid back, neck, and lower back—which gives your spine an ‘S’ shape. A bad posture distorts your spine’s natural curve, in turn, affecting your whole body and causing a wide array of issues which ranges from poor circulation to impaired lung function and constricted nerves.
What are some of the symptoms/signs that a poor work-from-home setup is already affecting someone, and that a potentially serious medical issue is looming around the corner?
People who have a work-from-home setup that isn’t ergonomic are more likely to suffer from issues like new body aches and pain. Sitting for too long, staring at the laptop screen, and extending your wrists puts a whole lot of physical stress on your body. So, paying attention to what your body is telling you will help you understand when it is time to change your home office setup or seek medical attention.
A few body aches to watch out include neck and shoulder pain, digital eye strain, tight hips, leg cramps, hand and wrist strain and backache.
If they don’t correct these signs and symptoms immediately, will it further complicate their health? What should someone do if they’re already experiencing some of these symptoms?
These symptoms of work from home-related health issues develop over a period of time. For instance, the lockdown started in March, but we have been witnessing an increase in the number of patients only from the past two months. Meaning, it took nearly six months for the symptoms to develop.
People who suffer from these signs and symptoms don’t have to seek immediate medical attention. When the first wave of symptoms strike, you should ideally try basic home remedies at first—try using hot packs or hot water packs, or get some rest—alongside looking for warning signs.
The most common warning signs include:
- Pain that doesn’t subside even after 5-7 days
- Insomnia—tossing and turning in bed
- Pain radiating to the lower thighs
- Tingling sensation or numbness in your hands
If you experience one or all of these warning signs, you know it is time you need to seek medical assistance.
Typically, people who live a healthy life, workout frequently and maintain a good posture, don’t suffer from these symptoms.
How can those working from home prevent these medical issues? What would your advice to them be?
My advice would be that they sit with their back straight, maintaining the natural curvature of their spine—which is what a good posture is. Bad posture puts a lot of pressure on your lower back and neck, especially when you have your laptop on your knees. So, maintaining the right posture will solve half the problem. And a good workspace set up can help with this.
People working from home should get frequent breaks (15-minute break ideally) after 1-2 hours of continuous work. Working for 7-8 hours straight without getting small breaks makes you more prone to the issues. The laptops or PCs should also be placed properly at eye level.
Additionally, engaging in regular activities such as walking, stretching exercises, and swimming (in a COVID-free world) is good for your back.
Interesting you mentioned having the right workspace set up. What type of chair and table should one use? If someone were to buy a new chair/table what should they look for?
Basically, any chair is fine as long as it supports your lower back and your shoulder. While an ergonomic chair is good and offers some extra benefits, you don’t have to always go for it. Maintain your posture so that your lower back, as well as your shoulder, is touching the back of your chair and your head is at the headrest. Also, remember to get proper breaks in between and you will save yourself from falling prey to work from home related health issues