Remote Working is Breaking the Workforce – Here’s How to Fix It

We looked at the cause of your discomfort and how to fit it

When the world went into lockdown and countless businesses shifted to remote working, plenty of office workers were delighted (albeit a little scared) to be able to work from the comfort of their own home. Working in pyjamas, no makeup, responding to emails from the couch, being just steps away from the fridge, no 30-minute commute? The dream.

But, what started to become clear after the initial panic wore off was that these daily nuisances were the things that had been keeping us together (bar makeup and real clothes, obviously). Especially for people working in small flats and houses with no space for a home office, working from home has created more problems than expected, particularly when it comes to pain. 

“Get your head and hands separated” 

Moya, a journalist, was used to working in an office five days a week. After working from home for a while, she began to feel pain in her upper back. “Luckily” for Moya she already had space for a desk in her room. Still, the new position of being hunched over her laptop was “almost certainly” the cause of her new-found back pain. 

Nell Mead, a physio of 20 years who recently moved her services online in response to the pandemic, noticed a rise in new clients at around the three week mark of lockdown in the UK. The three main problems, she said, have been related to ergonomic issues, stress and sports injuries. The former of which was the main obstacle for Moya. 

“People have gone from their fancy ergonomic sit-stand desks, and from moving around the office to boil the kettle/use the printer/have meetings etc., and from getting out to do the daily commute, to… working on a laptop from the kitchen table or the sofa.  This is causing all sorts of problems, from back and neck pain to RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury),” Nell told PC Guide in an email. One of the best things you can do, according to Nell, is to “get your head and hands separated.” 

“Laptops have the screen and the keyboard too close together, which means that your head and your hands squash together, which is a big cause of neck and upper back pain and RSI,” she says. “So if you need to use a laptop at home, my biggest tip would be to buy an external keyboard and mouse (which attach to your laptop via USB) and then use a stand to raise the screen away from the keyboard.” Moya found that doing exactly that – buying a wireless keyboard and mouse as well as a laptop stand – remarkably helped her back pain.

“When we stop using our diaphragms, we have to use other muscles to breathe – especially our neck and back muscles, which then get tight and fatigued, again causing neck and back pain”

Nell also cites stress as a huge factor in upper back pain, stating that the huge change of environment (as well as the obvious anxiety that comes with living through a pandemic) has given people genuine trauma. This, she says, sees people going into fight or flight mode and breathing more quickly and shallowly without using our diaphragms properly. “When we stop using our diaphragms, we have to use other muscles to breathe – especially our neck and back muscles, which then get tight and fatigued, again causing neck and back pain.”

Nell offers a range of online programmes to help combat these everyday issues for remote workers, including one that goes through how to manage stress, create a daily routine, and set up a home office. She also creates videos on breathing techniques and exercises as well as how to use yoga to manage stress, which you can access through her website and YouTube channel.

“I knew my back aches were related to this change in how I was sitting and working”

Other people were even less prepared when shifting to remote working. When Shahed first started working from home, she wasn’t prepared. After about four weeks of being away from the office, and working predominantly from her bed, Shahed noticed her lower back flared up in pain. “I was used to working at a desk and chair in the office, but [working from home] has meant I’ve been working from my bed, as I didn’t own a desk in my room,” she told me. “So, I knew my back aches were related to this change in how I was sitting and working.”

Working from your bed or your couch is all too tempting, but in the long run it can cause postural problems and nagging pain. After buying a desk, just two weeks ago, Shahed has also seen remarkable improvements in terms of pain, which she now feels much less frequently. The optimal sitting position is with knees, hips and elbows at 90 degrees, which is often difficult to maintain while working from home. Using a footrest as well as placing a pillow behind your lower back and propping up your laptop with a pile of books or a laptop stand will work wonders for your posture.

“The best posture is the next posture”

Louise Goss, the founder and editor of The Homeworker, recommends a sit-stand desk, which she uses herself. Having a desk that can transform into a standing desk is a great way to ensure you’re getting in some extra movement throughout the day. A lack of physical movement is actually a major contributing factor to the pain we feel working from home. Like I mentioned earlier, when your fridge and kettle are in the same room as your desk, and you don’t need to walk to and from the office, train stations or bus stops, we have much less need to move around. 

Louise was once told by an ergonomics expert that “the best posture is the next posture,” highlighting the importance of keeping yourself moving as much as possible. Otherwise, our muscles tend to cease up, leading to more discomfort.

Transforming your home into the optimal workspace is rarely cheap, but Jessica Andrews, whose pre-pandemic job involved helping to implement branded workspaces, has some great tips for making do with what you’ve got.

“Get creative”

“Get creative,” she says. “Look at your existing furniture – what has potential to be a desk? The obvious is the dining room table, but other places might exist, like a set of shelves for example.”  

Jessica helped her dad create a desk by removing three shelves from a shelving unit and added a dining chair: “Sorted!”

She also advises to make sure your lighting is bright enough. “Task lighting (which provides increased light for specific tasks in a room that may already have some ambient light) is important in any space,” she tells me. 

“Watching a film at night doesn’t require a great amount, but when you’re working, low light can add to faster fatigue, so make sure that those curtains are open as wide as can be. 

“Add an extra lamp at your workspace, or move some mirrors or reflective materials in (like tin foil, for example) to bounce some extra light around.”

Finally, Jessica recommends making sure your back is supported while seated. “When it comes to your chair, make sure that your back has the right lumbar (lower back) support. If you can get a bespoke chair, great, but if not, tie a cushion in place or get a detachable support.” Louise agrees, recommending a rolled up towel or similar to keep your lower back supported throughout the working day.

“Every employer said ‘grab a laptop and go home’ in March, and few of them said ‘by the way, do you have any suitable ergonomic seating and something to use as a desk..?’”

With all this in mind, it becomes easier to see that working from home isn’t all pyjamas and relaxation. With 74 percent of companies intending to permanently shift to remote working post-coronavirus, it’s vital for employers to make sure their employees’ needs are met even when they can’t see them.

Remote working advocate and author of the upcoming Healthy Happy Home Working book series, Maya Middlemiss, many of the important conversations that should take place during a controlled shift to remote working were lost to the urgency of lockdown. “I think the main thing is every employer said ‘grab a laptop and go home’ in March, and few of them said ‘by the way, do you have any suitable ergonomic seating and something to use as a desk..?’” she said. 

As health and safety has always been a shared responsibility of the employer and employee, it is important that, while there is room to discuss an employer providing essential equipment (where possible), the employee must use said equipment in accordance to training – especially in the case where an employee can’t be seen. That being said, it’s not unfair to ask for support in the form of extra equipment that will help lessen the discomfort of working from home. 

Louise agrees, although she is aware that providing ergonomic setups for all employees is not possible for most companies, especially right now. As a compromise, she suggests offering basic training and advice to employees, maybe in the forms of diagrams or suggesting optimal ergonomic setups. Although, she says, “I suppose, as an employee, [you should take a] little bit of responsibility for keeping in tune with…how your body’s feeling and…whether you’re noticing any pain or discomfort”. 

Going from the office to home working overnight is rarely easy unless you already have a home office setup, no distractions and the time and energy to keep yourself moving. Getting hold of some equipment like a keyboard and mouse, a laptop stand or a specialized chair will probably do wonders. Since not everyone’s rich, trying out some easy home remedies like propping your laptop up on a box on the dining room table, sticking a rolled-up towel behind your lower back and doing daily stretches and breathing exercises might be the key to creating the remote working environment you dreamed of on every 8:00 AM commute to the office.