As the worst rail strikes in 30 years begin to hit, we’re all back to working from home once again. And it seems that despite a gradual shift to hybrid working since the pandemic we’ve still not got our home working setup as organized as it could be.
A new report from Leeds University Business School into working from home and its pros and cons has found that only 37.5 per cent of homeworkers have a dedicated home-working setup. Nearly a fifth of respondents were working from a kitchen table, 7.8 per cent were working from a room which didn’t even have a table or desk, and 5.8 per cent admitted they were still spending at least some time working from their beds.
The problem with this lack of a proper working space is that it can have serious ill effects on the body, especially if it becomes a habit. “Prolonged looking down could contribute to neck strain and neck pain,” says Marc Holl, head of primary care and former head of physiotherapy at Nuffield Health. “If you’re not holding your head correctly you could then be straining your eyes because you’re using your eye movements rather than using your neck, which is stronger. If you don’t have peripherals like a USB keyboard and mouse, it’s best to keep your laptop on a flat surface. You don’t want your arms floating up in the air on the keyboard, as this can cause strain in your wrists.”
It is also worth investing in a decent chair. “A good ergonomic chair is made in such a way that makes you sit in a more posturally sound way, so the height of your chair means you can have your forearms on the table with your screen at eye-height,” explains Kerrie-Anne Bradley, the founder of Pilates At Your Desk and functional movement expert. “That’s more difficult when you don’t have a chair and a desk; if you’re working at a coffee table or on your sofa then you’re going to be looking down towards your screen, it’s not going to be at eye-height, you’re less likely to be sitting up in such a way that stacks your bones in their neutral position.”
You needn’t pay a fortune for anything specialized though, says Holl. “If you are temporarily working from home, there’s no need to purchase an expensive ergonomic chair,” he says. “Just ensure the chair you have has a straight back and is comfortable. Try using a rolled up towel in the lower curve of your back if this is more comfortable for you.” For those looking for something more specialized, expert Telegraph testers recommend Herman Miller and SIHOO as brands to choose from.
Of course, even with a proper desk and chair set up, sitting down is something of an anathema to the human body. In 2014, Dr James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, famously told the LA Times that “sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death. The chair is out to kill us.”
But if the chair is bad for our health, the sofa or bed are even worse. In the absence of a desk or chair you’re less likely to sit up in such a way that creates balance across the body. “When you’re sitting up in a chair, the bones which line up with the bottom of your pelvis will be in a neutral position and then the rest of your spine will be stacked more neutrally on top of that,” says Bradley. “When you’re on the sofa or sitting in bed, you’re less likely to be sitting up, you’re more in a croissant shape with your bottom tucked under, so there’s an imbalance between the front and back of the body which can lend itself lower back pain, achy hips, sore shoulders, sore neck, and neck pain.”
Bradley also notes there are other systems in the body, such as the pelvic floor, which can’t function optimally if you’re not sitting upright. “Also, sitting slumped is also a low energy position; you’re not burning as many calories to hold yourself upright, which has obvious long-term implications,” she says.
Breathing is another system which doesn’t work as it’s meant to if you sit in this ‘croissant’ position, says Dr Aimee Brame, consultant physician at London Bridge Hospital. During the pandemic a lot of people were coming into her clinic with “dysfunctional breathing disorders. It’s a problem people have with the way that they breathe. It’s not a problem they have with the lungs or anything else. For various different reasons, people breathe ineffectively.”
Workplaces that aren’t set up properly, including kitchens and bedrooms, explains Dr Brame, can cause people to end up developing musculoskeletal problems; they sit ineffectively, not giving their diaphragms enough room, so then they start to use unusual methods to try to maintain a comfortable breathing pattern, and their muscles learn to continue to do that in the long term, which affects breathing.
If you aren’t breathing properly this can cause the body to be feeling a constant low-level stress. “It’s not just the breathing and the oxygenation but it’s the whole wind-up fight and flight response that you get as a consequence of stress and anxiety,” says Dr Brame. “It all starts to wind down as you slow down your breathing and calm down and take deep breaths properly.”
Poor posture can be fixed, says Dr Brame, but once the postural issues become ingrained in the long-term, for example working from home like this for a while, it becomes harder to unlearn them.
One much talked about solution to the sitting crisis is the standing desk. You can purchase these relatively inexpensively (the ‘Trotten’ adjustable desk is £180 at IKEA) and you’ll likely find some benefit: evidence shows that the human body burns more calories standing than sitting. As for posture though, the research isn’t that clear. A 2018 study from Curtin University in Australia found that standing desks led to increased back aches and pains in those who used them for around two hours. The trouble, researchers have concluded, is that those who have poor posture from sitting too much are also standing with poor posture – shoulders forward, back hunched – and actually standing can exacerbate these issues rather than fix them.
“The main message here is that it’s better to move between positions across the course of the day when chained to your desk,” says Dr Sarah Davies, consultant in Musculoskeletal, Sport and Exercise Medicine at the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health ( ISEH). “By moving more constantly and frequently away from a prolonged static seated position you are preventing the spine from settling in one position, which is healthier for the spinal soft (ligaments and cartilage) and hard (bone) tissues and which should cause less pain in the short and longer term.”
“All physios will agree that every twenty minutes you need to get up and move around, even if you’re still on a conference call or a Skype call or a telephone call,” adds Holl. Stretching is also important. “Put your hands on your glutes [bottom] and stretch backwards to look up to the ceiling, just to give a stretch in the opposite direction to where they’ve probably been sitting. I also recommend ‘deskercise’: Knees to chest, ankles over your opposite knee to stretch their hips, arms up to the ceiling, then out to the side, then behind their back.”
Ultimately though, a chair with a back rest will always beat the ‘Netflix slouch’. Office enthusiasts might be unsurprised to learn that, aside from the health issues, the Leeds University research concluded that not having a proper workspace is associated with lower performance, job satisfaction and engagement.
How to have a healthy homework setup
- Make sure your screen is at eye level to avoid straining your neck muscles
- Keep your laptop on a flat surface to avoid wrist strain
- Sit up straight (ideally in a desk chair with lumbar support) to keep the vertebrae of your spine as straight as possible. This will help to avoid lower back pain, achy hips, and sore shoulders and neck
- Breathe properly, with your diaphragm not your shoulders
- Stand and move around as much as possible. At least try to do 250 steps every hour
- Simple yoga stretches like ‘cat cow’, as well as core workouts such as crunches or planks can help keep you sitting up straight
- Memory foam sitting cushions and footrests help improve posture and alleviate lower back pressure
- Move as much as possible, even if it’s simply getting up to refill your coffee cup or pacing around any time you’re on the phone
- If you don’t have a chair with lumbar support, roll up a towel and slot it behind your back (in the curve of your spine) for added support