Working from home can be a right pain – but is all your pain due to physical problems

Read on to find out why some neck, shoulder and back pain may be caused by additional stress or anxiety.

When we were ringing in the new year in January, no one would have thought we would be where are today.  Lockdowns, restrictions, massive closures of shops, cinemas, bars and of course working from home (or #WFH as it has become known) have all drastically changed how we ‘Work Rest and Play’ (to steal a famous strapline).

Many of us had to completely change how we lived and worked, literally overnight.  Personally, it was a chance to take a break. Being self-employed in a hands-on profession, I was forced to close my doors, and so for the first time in seven years, I downed my tools and took up the spade, seed trays and hose and started my journey to becoming self-sufficient. Many other self-employed, like myself, have had to find new ways to get to and service their clients. 

Some employees on furlough were able to take a break, but that in itself caused problems. Others had to create a makeshift workspace at home.  Often the kitchen table, the sofa or even the floor.  At the start of all this, I was thinking: ‘This will be great, a few weeks off.”  But here we are, 6 months on and no sign of return for many to their place of work.  In fact, the government are still urging those who can work from home to continue doing so.

Nuffield Health conducted research in June and found that 7 out of 10 (70%) of people were experiencing more aches and pains in the back, neck, shoulders, legs and joints, more problems with eye strain, and more headaches than usual when working from home. Not surprising when 24% stated they work from their sofa, and a staggering 17% are working on their living room floor.  There is big business in ergonomics – that is establishing the optimum work environment to ensure maximum comfort and support.  People with bad backs take time off work.  So, it pays to get them the right seat, at the right height and the right computer screen and on and on.  And yet, here we are working on a soft sofa with our laptops on our knees.  Ergonomics has completely gone out of the window.

Thirteen percent (13%) of people had stated they have been taking more pain killers since lockdown.  The postural and muscular problems experienced because of the poor working environment are key to this.  But they are not the only reason.

Nuffield Health also did a survey on the mental health of people forced to work from home.  They found almost a third (30%) surveyed found it difficult to separate work and home life, with almost half (45%) spending more time doing work, and for longer periods without a break than they would normally if they were in the office and 27% reporting difficulties in switching off at the end of the working day. 

The pressure of feeling they should always be at their computer affected 36% surveyed, while 19% stated they felt pressure to look good on video calls.  And a quarter (25%) reported feeling more lonely and isolated. When dealing with the aches and pains of working from home it is not just about the softness of the sofa, or if you can do the full lotus position as you gracefully fold forward to relax at the front of your laptop that sits in the floor.

It’s about looking at the full situation.

Pain causes stress of anxiety.  And stress or anxiety causes pain.

We can get into a vicious circle of pain and stress if we don’t act to address it fully.  Negative thought patterns, not just negative thinking, but those negative comments drip-fed into you by continually watching the news; or the constant interruptions by your three-year-old when you are facing a deadline; or the noise of the washing machine whirring in the background when that important client calls; or the very poor Wi-Fi signal that means you have to literally sit at your front door where the modem is just to send an email.  All these issues, problems, annoyances, call them what you will cause us stress or anxiety.

When we experience these our bodies release the stressor hormones – cortisol, adrenaline and other stressor hormones into the body to prepare us to fight or flight. But we are not going anywhere.  These stressor hormones cause inflammation which causes pain.  And they can manifest in many ways in the body – primarily back, shoulder and neck pain, but there are over thirty recognised Neurophysiological Disorders, which are physiological pains, aches, rashes etc caused by or minds.

What can you do to help yourself?

To maintain good physical health while working from home you can:

  1. Stretch – bad posture and lack of movement can cause the muscles to tighten, and often in an unnatural position.  Think of how your head and neck are stretched while looking down on a laptop if you are working from the sofa. This not pulls only the neck muscles but also those muscles in the shoulders and upper and middle back.  Get into the habit of stretching for fifteen minutes every two to three hours.
  2. Walk around – Walking gets the blood circulating again.  So, get up from your seat and walk, even if it is while you are one the phone or going to the loo.  Restricting the circulation leads to stagnation of the blood in the muscles, which can cause pain.
  3. Hydrate yourself – being well hydrated means your muscles will be like plum plums rather than dried out prunes.  The dried-out muscles tighten up and pull on other muscles and joints. 
  4. Lumbar support – support your lower back with a cushion or rolled-up towel.  And try to sit with your backside as close the to the back of the chair as possible to give you better posture.
  5. Give yourself a break – make sure you take breaks from work to help reduce eye strain and clear the mind.

To reduce any anxiety or stress from working from home (and so reduce any inflammation and pain) you can:

  1. Step away from the computer – don’t be afraid to get up from your computer.  If you were in the office, you would naturally do this while chatting with your colleagues.  Taking a break will also help you clear the mind and you will have better concentration and clarity, so in effect, you will be more efficient when you do work.
  2. Use the phone – we have gotten so used to video calls that we often forget to just phone.  This was there is no pressure to look your best.  But also, just phone to have a catch up with colleagues like you would normally do.  Keep the relationships there like before.
  3. Clear your workspace each day – if you don’t have a dedicated office space in your house where you can just close the door, then do clear away your work completely, or you will find that while you are eating your dinner you will be checking emails.  You need to make a clear demarcation between your work time and your home time.
  4. Check-in with your thoughts every now and then.  All our issues start and grow in our minds.  And so, we have the power to stop them and replace them.  The biggest issue I find when working with people is that they just let their thoughts happen.  So get to know what you are saying to yourself and take control and change it.  It will literally change your life.
  5. Focus on the good – there is a saying ‘What you focus on you get”.  Yet most of us get sucked into focusing on the things we don’t want instead of the things we do want.  If, for example, we are saying to ourselves – ‘I am fed up with this virus’ the subconscious focuses in on being fed up, as this is your dominant feeling at that time, and on the virus.  Change that to ‘I am so glad to be healthy right now.  Here the sub-conscious pick-ups on the feeling of being glad and feeling healthy and it will find you more reasons to feel glad and healthy. 
  6. Write a list - if you are struggling with working from home.  Write a list of all the good things about it versus all the things you don’t like about it.  Then focus on the good.  Even if it is the fact you live in your tracksuit bottoms. 

Remember what you focus on you get.

Our attitudes are key to all of this.  In the first few weeks of lockdown I met my neighbour, I was in my wellies, carrying buckets of young nettles I had collected to make fertilizer (I learned many new skills during lockdown!) and he was walking the dog and when I said ‘Hello, how are ye?’ his reply was “I’m bored out of my tree”. Two weeks later I met him again and this time the reply wasn’t so pleasant.  He had nothing in life only work and his attitude was: ‘I can’t cope with this’. 

If you change your attitude you will change how you feel.  When you change how you feel you lift your energies and you feel better both physically and mentally.