Two years ago, work from home – or WFH – was not a phrase that many of us used widely. Today it’s an expression that’s become an integral part of our daily lexicon. But as WFH has become commonplace, so too have the risks on our health. Indeed, healthcare providers have seen a rise in work-related ailments that are completely unique to the working from home environment.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health surveyed a selection of at-home workers. The results showed that 41.2% of them reported low back pain, while 23.5% reported neck pain. About half of the respondents said that their neck pain had got worse since they started working remotely.
Workers in Singapore are no exception. “As a family physician, I’ve seen an increasing presentation of symptoms such as headaches, neck and back pain, sore buttocks, arms, wrist strains and sprains,” says Dr Valerie Druon, an Australian family GP based at Osler Health International.
For those who can see your bed from your desk, or regularly join important boardroom meetings from your own bathroom, here’s what you can do to nip some of the most common WFH health problems in the bud.
WFH complaint #1
Sitting hunched over with rounded shoulders and your back in awkward positions
Dr Valerie: “This is a common concern for those working outside an office environment at the moment. Our backs are not designed to withstand long hours sitting down at a desk in uncompromising positions. In a static sitting form, a huge amount of strain is put on the muscles around your lower back, causing tightness of your muscles and joints. You may feel a pain in your lower back but be aware that it can also manifest in your shoulders, neck, arms, hands, hips, and legs.”
The cure: A seat that has lower back support is vital. The back rest of your chair should be forward, snuggled against your back to avoid rocking your hips backward. If your chair is too large, a lumbar support or cushion is needed. Adequate padding of your chair is also important to avoid conditions like coccydynia which is caused by excessive strain on your coccyx, the tailbone, during prolonged sitting time.
WFH complaint #2
Forgetting to breathe properly while juggling work alongside other distractions
Dr Valerie: “Breathing fast is often related to stress and anxiety. There is a reason why yoga practioners use breath throughout their practise – a calm, deep breath will centre and relax you.”
The cure: Remember to take regular breaks away from your desk and check your posture. Be mindful to bring yourself into an upright position with your chin up if you’re finding yourself slouching forward. This will open your chest and rib cage. With one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly, breathe in slowly through your nose and let your belly stick out. Breathe out slowly squeezing your belly in. Repeat 15 times. Deep slow breathing exercises will reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels.
WFH complaint #3
Achy bits thanks to working in enclosed spaces
Dr Valerie: “I’ve been seeing more patients with achy wrists, hands and fingers and the symptoms include tingling, numbness or pain. These can point to two common ailments – tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. The first is a type of tendonitis and considered an overuse injury caused by repetitive hand or wrist motion. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve (which is on the palm side of your hand) is compressed or irritated. Symptoms are limited to your thumb, index finger, middle finger and the thumb side of your ring finger.”
The cure: The best solution is resting your wrists and fingers. Elbows should be resting at right angles to your body. Wrists should be at ease on the keyboard at a neutral position. A bit like playing the piano, your wrists need to be on a straight line with your forearms, not bending upwards. Ideally, your keyboard and mouse should be positioned below your desk. You can also benefit from an ergonomic keyboard and mouse pad with wrist support while working.
WFH complaint #4
Sitting down for longer, moving less, and becoming best friends with the fridge
Dr Valerie: “Being sedentary is not good for our body both physically and mentally. Very simply, if we graze on high sugar foods and do not move much, it’s possible that we will gain weight. Abdominal (or visceral) fat is particularly concerning because it can contribute to other health problems – much more so than subcutaneous fat, the kind you can grasp with your hand. Visceral fat lies out of reach, deep within the abdominal cavity, where it pads the spaces between our abdominal organs. In some cases you may not even be aware of it unless you have a health check.”
The cure: Move! It’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s imperative that you move your body each and every day. It doesn’t matter if you run, walk, do yoga or a HIIT class, just do something. Not only are there immense physical health benefits to activity, exercise also has proven mental health benefits. We’re lucky to live in Singapore where there’s a huge variety of classes and sports on offer. ANZA can help with this!
WFH complaint #5
Sea Sponge Brain
General burnout and mental fatigue due to long hours and less work-life balance
Dr Valerie: “Our lives have been disrupted by multiple lockdowns, the imposition of working and schooling from home, in addition to the inability to see loved ones. For many of us in 2022, work has flowed beyond its previous boundaries. Patients are feeling stressed and burnt out – a state of physical and mental exhaustion. You may be experiencing burnout if you identify with the below:
- Agitated and unable to relax
- Easily irritable and more reactive to trivial triggers
- Difficulties with concentration and ability to focus
- Poor to no motivation or energy to initiate healthy activities
- Mentally and physically fatigued and cannot make any decisions
- Disrupted sleep, appetite and basic bodily functions
- Panic attacks, and being prone to anxiety and depression
- Adopting unhealthy coping skills like alcohol, smoking, not exercising, more screen time, and poor food choices
The cure: If any of the above sounds familiar, please seek help from a trusted GP. Being burnt out does not go away without intervention and there are solutions available to help you.
WFH complaint #6
Stretching out your neck and poking your chin out to adjust to home computer screens
Dr Valerie: “During lockdown the most common cause of neck pain was muscle tension due to poor posture. Our head is heavy (the average human head weighs 5kgs!) and as we reach forwards or down to read our phones, tablets or laptops, our muscles can tighten and restrict blood flow leading to neck pain and tension-type headaches.”
The cure: Raise or lower your computer screen so it’s at eye level. The screen distance should also be an arm’s length infront of you. An easy solution is to simply put your laptop onto some books for additional height. Also, get up and move around at intervals so you regularly release any muscle tension.
WFH complaint #7
More screen time than ever, often dragging into the evening and night
Dr Valerie: “Eye strain occurs when your eyes are overused – especially if you’re staring at a screen for many hours of the day. Symptoms can include headaches, dry or itchy eyes, red eyes, eye twitching, blurred vision and a general feeling of eye discomfort.”
The cure: Firstly, consider an eye exam at an opticians. Secondly, adjust the lighting in your home office by ensuring that your work environment is not too dark. The light should be soft and not coming from behind your computer screen (making you look into the light). Thirdly, adjust the brightness of your computer display so it’s approximately the same as your surrounding workstation. Lastly, take the time to stare away from your screen and at the horizon regularly while you work. Sky gazing has shown to be beneficial for eye health and stress, and it gives your brain a much-needed breather too.
Dr Valerie Druon is an experienced Australian family GP based at Osler Health International (Star Vista). Call 6339 2727 or visit osler-health.com