Every time Alexandra Rella PT, DPT, gives a presentation on workplace ergonomics, she starts by telling her audience to stand and stretch. Backs arch. Necks roll. Moans of appreciation fill the air.
Witness the power of the “microbreak.”
As an employee injury prevention specialist with Penn Medicine’s Corporate Safety Management Department, it’s Rella’s job to identify and reduce the risks of workplace injuries throughout the health system. And there are many of them, from the precise, repeated motions demanded by laboratory work to the acute strain of lifting and moving patients.
Still, some of the most damaging behaviors are ones many of us are probably doing right now: Looking down at our laptop screens. Slumping in our chairs. Spending long, static hours on Zoom or MS Teams meetings, or in virtual medical consultations.
With so many of us working from home because of COVID-19 precautions, variations in home office arrangements can lead to strain on muscles, tendons, and nerves, just as in the office. What’s more, many of us have lost the small breaks we enjoyed as on-site employees — taking the stairs, walking between buildings, going to meetings — that gave us time away from our computers and opportunities to move our bodies in different ways.
Broadly speaking, workstation risks fall into three categories: awkward postures, repetitive movements, and contact stresses (when soft tissue meets a hard surface like the edge of a desk or laptop). “Neutral posture is at the beginning of all ergonomics conversations,” Rella says, “It all starts there.”
As we work, many of us lapse into a forward-flexed posture, where the lumbar (lower) spine is flexed forward and the head and shoulders droop forward as well. “That puts a lot of strain on the neck and upper back muscles,” Rella explains. “Those muscles are stabilizers; they’re not meant to hold the head up.” Over time, a forward-flexed work posture can lead to low-back pain from sore muscles, strained ligaments, and even bulging and ruptured disks.
Fortunately, a few simple adjustments right now can improve our daily comfort and long-term health — wherever we happen to be working. Even better, they’re essentially free. “If you do nothing else,” Rella says, “these three things can be very helpful for offsetting fatigue points of any kind”:
1. Lumbar roll. Placed near the base of the spine, a rolled gym towel can provide improved support for the lumbar spine in nearly any chair. A lumbar roll helps keep the shoulders and neck in a neutral posture, reducing strain. Different-sized towels can provide a custom fit. The roll shape can be secured with tape, and placement is fairly easy: as long as it’s positioned in the small of the back and is comfortable, it’s helping.
2. Foot rest. When placed under the feet, a couch cushion, rolled-up exercise mat, firm pillow, or foam roller props the legs up a bit, provides support, and helps put the back in a resting state, reducing strain and fatigue.
3. Microbreaks. Taken throughout the day, microbreaks provide an opportunity to rise, stretch, and refocus. In most cases, a 30-90 second break should be plenty. Microbreak prompts can be set in Outlook or on a Fitbit or smart watch, and there are free reminder apps available for iPhone or Android devices.
After addressing the items above, there are other upgrades worth trying. A rolled kitchen towel under the forearms can reduce contact stress between the soft tissue of the wrists and a laptop’s hard exterior. Small purchases can have big payoffs; a full-size external keyboard and mouse can be had for about $25, providing a much healthier foundation for all-day work than a cramped laptop keyboard. The addition of an external keyboard and mouse also allows the laptop to be elevated using a stack of stable books to raise the monitor to eye level, reducing neck and shoulder strain.
Above all, Rella says, “Listen to your body. If you’re starting to recognize fatigue points in your back, in your shoulders, or in your arms, that’s your body telling you it’s time to make a change.” Check your posture and positioning to make improvements and be sure to take a microbreak.