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Don't Forget to Brush Your Teeth & Other Tips: how to stay healthy while working from home

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.

A man is typing on a laptop. His body is in an unnatural, comfortable and dangerous position: his elbows are too high, his spine is curved, his shoulders are hunched, his head is angled downwards and he has 'forward head posture', also known as 'chicken neck'
This is anyone who uses a laptop without a separate keyboard

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.

Snellen Visual Acuity (Eyesight Test) Chart

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.

My sonicare electric toothbrush with Colgate toothpaste hanging from the wall. The image has a purple filter
Did you brush your teeth this morning?

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.

A man lies in bed in pyjamas, propped up on a pillow, using his laptop. His head is angled forward and his spine is curved.
He won't be smiling when one of the discs in his neck herniates

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 delegati