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Are you sitting comfortably?

If you’re in physical discomfort at work, what can you do to help yourself? By Kathy Oxtoby 

Sitting at a computer all day can – literally – be a pain in the neck. It can also be a pain in the back, shoulders, forearms and wrists. For those of us who spend much of our working life at a desk, being constantly in a seated position is a risk factor for this type of physical discomfort, and a common problem. 

So common, in fact, that last year, a survey of the labour force found that half a million workers were suffering from this type of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Some 39% were affected by back pain, 45% by upper limb and neck pain, and 16% by lower limb pain, the survey found.  

And with many people working from home since the pandemic hit, musculoskeletal pain is likely to become an even bigger problem. “Covid homeworking has had an impact – for example people have been working sitting on their sofas, hunched over their laptops, which can cause upper back pain,” says Caroline Bennett, managing director and lead physiotherapist of Physioflex in West Lothian, and a member of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics (ACPOHE) 

But poor posture while working is not the only reason people experience this type of pain and discomfort. “There isn’t one thing that can cause musculoskeletal discomfort. It can be caused by a direct injury, or more often than not, inactivity or repetitive movements,” says Colette Owen, a physiotherapist based in south-east London working in private practice, who is also an ACPOHE committee member. And whatever’s causing it, pain and discomfort, or other related symptoms, “could impact on that person’s quality of life,” says Colette. She adds: “And it’s not just work; the musculoskeletal disorders could affect their ability to commute, complete everyday household tasks, and sleep. Physical health and mental health are closely aligned, with one affecting the other.” 

However, there are some steps you can take to help prevent and tackle work-related physical pain and discomfort, from adjustments to your office – or homeworking – space to simple exercises. 

Simple workspace improvements 

There are some simple ways that you can make improvements to your workspace. Colette advises that ideally you should always use your laptop with a separate keyboard, separate mouse, and a ‘riser’ – which could be a stack of books or boxes. “And get to know your chair: do you know what all the levers and paddles do?” she says. “It should not be so low under your desk that you need to lift your shoulders, and it should fully support your back.” 

When you’re working at the computer, the top of the screen should be at eye level. And the mouse and keyboard should be in what Colette describes as an “area of comfort for working – close enough so that you are not overreaching or stretching”. 

Don’t forget that your manager and company have a duty of care to support you, too. This could involve completing a risk assessment of the work area, making sure that access to a workstation assessment, occupational health or work benefits is easy and simple, or supporting you regarding your actual work role. After all, it’s in their interests to ensure that you’re as productive as possible! 

Adjusting your work environment 

You can also make your own adjustments to your physical working environment to help prevent and manage discomfort and pain. Caroline advises setting up your workstation every morning before starting work, as part of your daily routine. Even if you are ‘hot-desking’, she recommends setting up your station for yourself each time: “Don’t put up with what another person had the day before.” 

You could try using standing desks to avoid your working day being too sedentary. However, points out Juliet Raine, a physiotherapist, global ergonomics consultant and executive committee member of ACPOHE, “You’re still standing still. It’s better to take regular quick breaks away from your desk with little bursts of activity to boost your movement throughout the day.”  

Ways to ease pain and discomfort 

Simple exercises can help ease musculoskeletal pain and discomfort, and can be fitted easily into your day-to-day routine (see box). 

“What we want is to boost the circulation – so we need to get up for short periods and move our arms and stretch our legs to get the blood circulating around the body,” says Juliet. She suggests yoga or Pilates, and uses these techniques with her patients. “But”, she adds, “any kind of exercise is good as it has a positive effect on the body and mind.” 

Taking better care 

Keeping moving is crucial to looking after our musculoskeletal health, says Juliet. “However, a lot of people feel too busy to move to take a break from being glued to their computer. The good news is it’s easy to change your behaviour.” Simple techniques she recommends to remind yourself to keep moving include placing a brightly coloured sticky note on the edge of your computer screen, as “every time you see the note, it will remind you to change your posture”. Or you could set a smart watch “to remind you every hour to do 200 steps”.  

Colette agrees. “It’s important to make time for you. Introduce a variety of activities into your daily life.” If you do find that you’re having symptoms like aches, pins and needles, or weakness, and you’re just not getting better, do seek medical advice. “Physiotherapists are musculoskeletal specialists and can often be accessed without a GP referral.” But make sure you find a qualified professional who’s a member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (which has a useful website where you can locate physiotherapists in your area).  

Taking better care of your physical wellbeing also means “being conscious of your own body’s position and any feelings of increased strain”, says Caroline. “When you feel that strain, get up and move. If we can catch these problems at the start, then we can avoid them becoming a major issue.”  

And she stresses the importance of looking after our physical wellbeing generally. “The stronger, fitter and healthier we are, the less likely we are to have aches and pains, and the better the body is able to cope with them when we do.” 

Tips for a ‘healthy’ workspace 

Physiotherapist Colette Owen gives her suggestions for ensuring your workspace suits your needs: 

  • Make sure your working environment is a pleasant place to be: clear of clutter, with good lighting, and no distracting noise.  
  • To check that you have the correct work kit, or that it is set up correctly, request a workstation – or ‘display screen equipment’ (DSE) – assessment via your employer.  
  • If you’re working from home, consider investing in a decent, adjustable chair with ergonomic support. If you don’t have adjustable screens or footrests, try experimenting with books or boxes to raise to the correct level. Check if your workplace adjustments extend to home assessments and equipment.   
  • When you’re sitting at your desk (assuming you have a chair that changes height and a separate keyboard and mouse for use with your screen), your eyes should be level with the top of the screen; your hips should be higher than your knees, with your feet flat on the floor (or a footrest); and your forearms should be horizontal to the desk, with elbows at 90 degrees. 
  • Change your posture at least every 45 to 60 minutes. This could be anything: simple movements, changing where you work, or something more physical like running on the spot.  
  • Colour-code your diary or calendar to remind you to move. The most important thing you can do for your musculoskeletal health is to keep active during the working day as well as at other times! 
  • Make time each day to watch the seven-minute video from CSSC on Chairobics. It’s a quick and handy set of simple exercises from the convenience and ‘comfort’ of your office or home chair – cssc.co.uk/chairobics. 
  • Explore CSSC life, our health and wellbeing platform packed full of really useful tips, tools and advice on staying mobile, designed to fit in around your lifestyle.– cssc.co.uk/cssclife 
  • If you work better in pairs, groups or with some motivation, why not organise a lunchtime walk or team exercise? They can be really inspiring and build great camaraderie. Contact CSSC to utilise their networks and experience. We may even be able to help fund equipment.  

Physical health and mental health are closely aligned, with one affecting the other. 

The stronger, fitter and healthier we are, the less likely we are to have aches and pains.