5 ways to avoid aches and pains when working from home

Optimizing your workspace and finding ways to move throughout the day can help you avoid overuse injuries.

For many, working from home has become the new norm as a result of COVID-19. Traditionally a difficult prospect for many physicians, the explosion of telemedicine has allowed more clinicians to experiment with working from home at least part-time. In particular, telepsychiatry has grown in leaps and bounds during the pandemic.

While there are many benefits to working remotely, the arrangement can increase discomfort and lead to overuse injuries if one’s home workspace is not configured properly.

Fortunately, there are simple ways to optimize your at-home office. Stacey Pierce-Talsma, DO, associate dean of clinical affairs at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine and a registered yoga teacher, shares five tips to promote health when working from home.

1. Set up your work station properly

Whether you’re sitting at a real desk or at your kitchen table, be sure both of your feet are flat on the floor—try using a book if needed. Your knees should be bent at a 90-degree angle, the hips should be aligned with the height of your chair, and you should be sitting up straight.

If your chair doesn’t promote this posture, you may want to consider buying an inexpensive back support to help you sit more upright. Sitting more forward on your chair, on your sit bones, can also help you sit with better posture.

Dr. Pierce-Talsma recommends positioning your computer screen 18-24 inches away from you, slightly above eye level. Your elbows should be bent at a degree of about 90 degrees, and, if possible, should be positioned lower than your wrists. Your wrists should be supported and should fall in a natural, comfortable position.

If you’re using a standing desk, be sure the desk allows for a 90-degree bend in your elbows, and note that your elbows shouldn’t rest on anything.

“If it makes you feel more comfortable, alternating between a seated desk and a standing desk can be a good thing, but it’s important to understand that standing for long periods with no breaks may have some negative effects, just like sitting for long periods,” notes Dr. Pierce-Talsma.

2. Take breaks to move and stretch

Dr. Pierce-Talsma recommends taking a one-minute break every 25-30 minutes. “You can set a timer to remind yourself to stand up, stretch, rest your eyes, and notice whether you feel any aches or pains,” she suggests. “I find that this is a really good work model because you can only maintain intense focus for a certain amount of time anyway, so it’s the perfect chance to move around a little and reset.”

It’s also worth thinking about what else you might be able to do to add more movement to your workday—for example, you might be able to take a few meetings standing up, or even go for a walk outdoors during a conference call.

3. Don’t ignore discomfort

“It’s very important not to ignore aches and pains, because they can really add up over time,” explains Dr. Pierce-Talsma. By configuring your workstation properly and taking regular breaks to stretch and move, you should be able to mitigate the risk of overuse injuries. However, it’s important to pay attention to any discomfort you encounter and address it promptly.

4. Find some favorite stretches

It’s worth a little trial and error to figure out which stretches are the most helpful for you.

“When I perform stretches during the workday, I try to bring mindfulness to my motion so I not only stretch but identify what places might be getting tight, sore and stiff,” says Dr. Pierce-Talsma.

5. Be kind to yourself

Being able to work remotely is a privilege but can also feel like a slog at times. Dr. Pierce-Talsma recommends keeping a healthy sense of perspective—and not pushing yourself too hard.

“We all have high standards for ourselves and our work, but there’s a pandemic going on right now,” she says. “My advice is, give yourself a break—everyone’s doing the best they can.”

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