Updated: May 7, 2020
When I started working from home (WFH) at the end of 2016 I had no idea how much I was putting my health at risk. From mental and emotional health to the physical, and from my teeth and eyes down to my ankles, I've learnt the hard way (but the sure way) just how important it is to be deliberate and thoughtful in planning your work-from-home set-up. Here are my top tips and insights (summarised in list form at the bottom of the piece).
In this article I cover:
o The importance of getting your home workstation right
o Look after your eyes
o Don't forget to brush your teeth
o Build routine into your day
o Move frequently
o Connect with other people
o Listen to your body and seek advice
o Work out what works for you
Laptops are Dangerous
I wonder if the person who invented laptops also owned a physiotherapy business? This invention has certainly generated a lot of business for all the massage therapists, physios, chiropractors and osteopaths who treat people suffering from musculoskeletal issues.. If you use a laptop on your kitchen table, or even worse, on your lap while watching TV on the sofa you are putting your body at enormous risk.
The laptop's screen is too close to its keyboard so inevitably your hands are too high and/or your head is angled downwards and/or your spine is curved.
The more you lean forward and rotate your head downwards, the greater the load on your neck:
When you're standing or sitting straight using a monitor or laptop stand, your head weights 10-12lbs (5kg);
With a poorly adjusted monitor or laptop stand you may be rotating 15 degrees forward which more-than-doubles the load through your spinal discs to 27lbs (>12KGs);
At your kitchen table without elevating your laptop, your forward rotation is more like 30 degrees and the load has increased to 40lbs (>18KG). Your body did not evolve to do this for sustained periods and is not built to withstand it;
on your sofa or while looking at your mobile phone your head is likely to be rotated 45 degrees forward (or more). At this point your neck is straining to survive a load of approximately 47 lbs (>21KGs) and you should probably prepare to see your physio sometime soon.
Exactly two years after I started working from home on my laptop without my old office docking station I suffered an acute bulging disc in my neck. 18 months have passed since my injury, but my brain is still wary about any load through the neck. I'm only just starting to feel able to do things like play tennis or go for a run.
Home Workstation Solution(s)
o Buy a separate keyboard and mouse (Bluetooth or plug-in) as a minimum so that you can raise your laptop up on a pile books and have the top of the screen at or just below eye level. They're really cheap and you can buy them online to be delivered tomorrow. Some are lightweight to make them easily portable for working in different external locations.
o Invest in a docking station + monitor or a cheap foldable laptop stand (the one I use is in this photo). Again, my laptop stand is lightweight and folds into a small shape to be portable.
o Invest in an ergonomic, adjustable office chair with lumbar support. Your spine can maintain a natural curvature without lower back support, but most people tend to slouch after a relatively short period of sitting down (the strong inward curve of the lower back inverts and creates a weak curve outwards into the back of the chair, which leads to back problems).
o Adjust your chair so that your elbows are at right angles to the keyboard and your feet are flat on the floor. If you don't have an ergonomic chair, use cushions to adjust a normal chair to the right height. A rolled towel can provide lumbar support.
o Position your chair close to your workstation so that you're not stretching or twisting while working.
o If you do need to use your laptop briefly on the sofa, set a timer for 10 minutes to ensure it doesn't drift unconsciously into a longer work session. But really, just don't do it!
Get Your Eyes Tested
Good employers pay for free eye tests for anyone who uses a computer. 15% of working age people can't read a 10-point font without straining their eyes, so make sure you get your eyes tested regularly. If you work for yourself be a good employer and get your eyes tested every year or two. Not being able to read the text on your screen will cause headaches and Forward Head Posture ('chicken neck'), putting additional strain on your neck and spine.
Look after your eyes
o Get your eyesight tested regularly;
o Adjust the 'zoom' or text size on your computer so that you can read it easily;
o Look into the far distance every few minutes to vary your focal length and avoid eyestrain;
o Position your screen perpendicular to the light source wherever possible to avoid glare and reflections on the screen.
Don't Forget to Brush Your Teeth
Brushing your teeth is a habit that most of us formed as kids. Most people brush their teeth before they go to bed and getting into bed without brushing your teeth likely 'feels strange' if it ever happens. Mostly you remember to brush your teeth as part of your bedtime routine.
You probably also remember to brush your teeth in the morning before you leave the house. Again, your morning routine may remind you to do this and a 'Habit Trigger' (see my blog post on Habit triggers) related to leaving the house, such as imagining the door or putting on your shoes, probably plays a part in this.
People are much less likely to brush their teeth in the morning at weekends than they are on weekdays because their morning routine is different and they may not leave the house. The same applies when you start working from home.
I suffered my first ever tooth cavity 12 months after I started working from home.
Dental Health Suggestion(s)
o Create a home-working morning routine (see previous section) and set a daily morning tooth-brushing reminder alarm on your phone (or store your toothpaste at your workstation to remind you).
I set my alarm for 9am and even after four years there are days when it reminds me that I've forgotten to brush them!
For bonus points take advantage of being home to brush your teeth after lunch as well as morning and night, particularly if your lunch includes refined carbs. If you eat something acidic, like fruit, then try to wait 30 minutes before you brush.
Create Routine and Structure in Your Day
Most humans need some sort of routine in their day to function well and reduce decision-making stress.
The traditional commute to work and the office environment create ready-made routine and structure:
fixed work hours enforce your morning wake up and routine;
your commute may prepare you for work and help you to decompress on the way home;
fixed lunch times and prompts from colleagues ensure you take your lunch break at a similar time each day;
coffee breaks and trips to the printer keep you moving;
managers and colleagues provide social interactions external accountability to keep you focused on the job in hand.
Home-working Routine Solution(s)
o Set your alarm for the same time each morning and, if necessary, set a 2nd alarm to ensure you get out of bed at the same time each day. Resist the temptation to work in bed (your posture will be awful and your bed should be a place of rest not work). Once you get over the initial thrill of no more commuting and owning your own time, avoid regular lies-in.
o Wash and get dressed before you start work. Even if you live alone or your partner/housemate has left the house, a morning shower will wake you up and improve your self-confidence. As with working in bed, working in your pyjamas blurs the boundaries between sleep and work and will negatively affect both.
o If possible, leave your home for a walk or a run before you start work and again when you finish for the day. This helps you to separate your leisure and sleep time from your work time.
As I'm writing this, we're in lockdown due to Covid-19 so you may not be able to leave the house. There are lots of resources online for yoga or other forms of home workout. I've featured some useful ones from Gerry in the section below.
o Schedule regular mealtimes and avoid eating at your desk.
o Set fixed working hours and switch off your devices outside of these times where possible. When you're working for yourself or working from home it's much easier to let the working day stretch into your leisure time. Nobody stays productive beyond 40 hours of work a week.
If you can't get all your work done in 40 hours talk to your boss or me! It is a fallacy to believe that the amount of work that could be done is in any way related to the amount of work that you can get done. Prioritisation, good management and delegation is the answer, not longer working hours.
o Introduce a morning and afternoon break. Ideally you should get up from your computer every 30-40 minutes (see 'Move' section below). What I'm suggesting is that, in addition to these regular breaks, you schedule a fixed 10-15 minute break mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Take the break away from your desk - read a book, talk to a friend or family member, do some exercise or other form of meditation. Breaking the day up like this will boost your productivity and help you to measure time better. Ignore the voice that says you're too busy to take a break; instead, take a break because you're busy.
Most people move less when they work from home. They don't do a morning walk and miss out on the walking part of their journey to work and back. They don't walk to meetings or go out to buy lunch.
But the truth is that even office workers don't move frequently enough and most people spend too many hours sitting down. Sitting lowers your heart rate and metabolism, your leg muscles shut down, blood pressure increases and good cholesterol falls. Studies show that even vigorous daily exercise (an hour's run each day) does not immunise you from the negative effects of being still for the rest of the day.
The solution isn't HIIt classes or standing more; it's about moving much more frequently.
Solutions for sedentary modern working life
o Organise your workstation to allow you to stand for 3-4 hours out of each working day. I have invested in a standing desk, which allows me to switch regularly between standing and sitting - there are a range of prices, including affordable solutions.
o Set alarms throughout the day to remind you to move:
- go to make a drink
- do a couple of squats or roll down towards your toes (see Gerry's 1st video)
Each of these takes less than a minute and will protect your body.
o Leave your house for a short walk/run before work, at lunchtime and after work.
o Do exercises that strengthen your body and protect it from work-related injuries.
I follow these routines from London sports masseur / personal trainer, Gerald Elphicke:
Laptop loosener 1 (12 mins)
Laptop Loosener 2 (9 mins)
Beginner Trunk Session (25 mins)
Whether it is these routines or your favourite yoga moves, I recommend you incorporate individual movements regularly throughout the day to keep your body from becoming stiff and immobile.
o Use different rooms in your home for different parts of your job. If you're on a call walk from room to room, if you need to read something do it in your kitchen while you make a drink...
Find time throughout the day to: - climb the stairs in your building for 20 seconds even if you don't need to; - do 5 squats or lunges; - lift your knees up to your chest; - stretch your hands up to the ceiling and lift onto your toes; and - any other movement that feels like it mobilises your sedentary body.
Connect with Other People
Working from home can be very isolating. Most people who start working for themselves (or have a new role working from home) don't miss too much about their old life commuting to the office, but social contact with co-workers is definitely one of them. Humans are hyper social animals. Some of us like to talk more while others prefer to listen but social contact is essential to human mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Remote workers don't often admit to feeling lonely, but in my experience this is the most challenging part of working from home long-term.
Suggestions for Maintaining Social Connection while Working From Home (WFH)
o Take advantage of your new flexibility to catch up with more people who matter to you - by phone, video call, instant message and most importantly, in person. Use your breakfasts, lunches, coffee breaks and evenings to build stronger social connections than when you were tied to your desk;
o Find ways to maintain social conversations with any current colleagues you may have and get back in touch with old colleagues;
o Create new contacts and build a support network of peers and like-minded professionals. If you're starting a new business then networking doesn't just have to be about potential clients. In-person networking is important, but Facebook groups. forums. blogs and group video calls are also great ways to connect.
o Find somewhere to work part or all of the time where you feel more connected. That can be a café where you're surrounded by strangers or a co-working space with social events and networking included. Find other people in the same situation and schedule times to work together in each others' homes or via webcam.
o Tell people that you're feeling lonely. You'll feel better after you've shared how you feel. The worst thing you can do is retreat further into your isolation. When people who care about you know how you feel they will make more of an effort to keep in touch.
o Share what you've been up to in conversations with your loved ones. If you're running your own business it's only natural that people will ask you how it's going. If you find those conversations difficult and feel defensive, don't worry, that's normal! Find someone you can talk to about the business where there is less emotion involved.
Listen to Your Body and Seek Advice
I've listed a number of insights and tips based on my experience of working from home and the surrogated experience I've gained from coaching other people who work from home. They are not universal or comprehensive so the most important message is that you should consider how you configure your home and work behaviours to suit home working.
Most importantly listen to your body and the people who know you best: - Pain and discomfort while your working or after you finish work are warnings from your body that you need to change something. - Interrupted or poor quality sleep are clues that what you're doing during the day isn't working for you. - Stress/anxiety and negative emotions are all ways that the body alerts you about possible risks.
Don't ignore these messages and seek advice from a relevant professional when something feels wrong.
Work Out What Works for You..
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so take time and use your brain to work out how you want to work. Experiment with different ways of working and how they make you feel. You spend most of your week working and changing from an office to home-working is a big change. Invest time and energy into getting it right.
Please share any other ideas of things that have worked for you or any problems you've faced. MESSAGE ME with your suggestions so that I can update the article. To book a coaching session go to the GET STARTED page of this website.
Use a desktop computer or if you use a laptop invest in a separate keyboard, mouse and docking station/stand;
Invest in an ergonomic, adjustable office chair with lumbar support;
Adjust your chair so that your elbows are at right angles to the keyboard and your feet are flat on the floor and position it close to your workstation so that you're not stretching or twisting while working;
Don't use your laptop on the sofa (set a timer for 10 minutes max if you do).
Get your eyesight tested regularly;
Adjust the 'zoom' or text size on your computer so that you can read it easily;
Look into the far distance every few minutes to vary your focal length and avoid eyestrain;
Position your screen perpendicular to the light source.
Set a daily alarm on you phone to remind you to brush your teeth; and/or
Store your toothpaste next to your computer to remind you to brush before work.
Routine and Structure:
Set your alarm for the same time each morning and, if necessary, set a 2nd alarm to ensure you get out of bed at the same time each day;
Avoid staying in bed right up until you start work and never work in bed;
Wash and get dressed before you start work;
If possible, leave your home for a walk or a run before you start work and again when you finish for the day (a home workout is almost as good);
Schedule regular mealtimes and avoid eating at your desk;
Set fixed working hours and switch off your devices outside of these times.
Physical Wellbeing and Movement:
Organise your workstation to allow you to stand for 3-4 hours out of each working day;
Set alarms throughout the day to remind you to move;
Leave your house for a short walk/run before work, at lunchtime and after work;