How to look after your back when you work at home

Week 4 in the coronavirus lockdown and I pull a muscle in my back. Alongside half the country it seems. Just one of the unexpected risks of working from home.

My back has been in tip-top condition since I moved to work in a coworking centre a few years ago. I’d started to take it for granted and was lured into a false sense that somehow I was over back pain. Well, no.

Luckily for me, it was mild this time. A warning shot. I got advice and took quick remedial action – and I’ve put in place a protocol to stop it happening again. Here it is, what you need to do to look after your back when you are working at home.

1. Limber up

It is most definitely too easy to cut the commute down to the number of steps from the bed to the desk. And that is, of course, the very worst thing that you can do. Sitting at a desk is a physical strain; before any exertion, you need to limber up. At worst you can even do that in your pajamas. Do some stretches, maybe a yoga routine.

But better still, get up and dressed and out of the house. Go for a walk, go for a circular commute. Walk in nature if you can, then you get the double benefit of physical exercise and the increased sense of wellbeing and calm that organic surroundings provide. Reducing stress relaxes your muscles as well.

Do some stretches after the walk and you’re ready for the day. And don’t forget to limber down again at the end of the day – with your homebound commute! Limbering up and down is my no.1 tip. It’s the only thing that I had stopped doing.

2. Keep moving

Sitting is the new smoking, you know this by now. Ideally, you should get up and move around every 20 minutes, but at least once an hour. Time flies when you are absorbed in work, so don’t leave it to chance. Set an alarm on your phone or learn not to ignore the buzz of your Fitbit.

Another way of moving is to stand up when you work. When you’re standing you need to adjust your position subtly all of the time and you use different muscles. You could invest in a standing desk, or alternatively, use a pile of books. It is hard to stand all day, so mix it up or rotate with some time sitting.

3. Listen to your body

If you start to get twinges, then pay attention. You need to sit less and move a lot more for a few days. Move gently, stretch gently, and lie down on the floor as much as you can.

Young children can come in handy at this stage; I’ve found getting them to walk along my back almost as good as a trained masseur. Painkillers can help in the short-term: for acute pain ibuprofen gel is good and for broader strains paracetamol or CBD gel capsules. Reassess your protocol at this stage too, what has gone wrong and how can you fix it?

4. Prepare your workspace

Move away from the sofa. Seriously, health and safety for home-based workers is no joke, and sofa working will only bring the wrong kind of tears to your eyes.

If at all possible try to set up a separate area for your workstation, with all your equipment and information in one place. Make sure that the lighting is adequate so that you’re not straining and hunching over to see things.

A good quality chair is essential. If you have been furloughed then ask if you can take your office chair home for the duration. Otherwise consider investing in a comfortable, adjustable office chair.

If you have to make do, then here are the basics for safe seating. Your feet should be firmly on the floor, your arms, and thighs horizontal with the floor and your keyboard. Your back needs to be well supported. You can make a back support by using a cushion or rolling up a towel and placing it between your lower back and the chair. You can also get your chair and feet at the right height by using cushions and boxes.

Your screen should be at eye level. Otherwise looking up or down will cause neck strain, posture problems and possibly headaches. If using a laptop, then get a cheap external keyboard and mouse and put the laptop up on a stand or on a pile of books.

Finally, drink more tea, or coffee if that’s your thing. Gather around your own water-cooler or tap. It’s not in the official advice, but hey, it will get you moving more on all these visits to the kettle, and to the loo. What can I say, it works for me.

Above all take ergonomics seriously and keep moving. You only have one back, so take the best care of it.