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Muscle aches and pains are often associated with getting older. It’s common to hear a family member complain of pulling a muscle after attempting a form of physical exercise that they suspected they were ‘too old or unfit for’.
However, we may have to look no further than our office job to find the cause of that nagging back pain. In comparison to a building site or factory, we often think of an office as a safe and less physically demanding place to work. However, there are many potential hazards in the office that can impact our health for years to come.
Although we may not know it, these hazards can have a direct impact on our posture. According to the Health and Safety Executive, ergonomic injuries such as back pain are responsible for 39% of all work-related ill health in Great Britain. If your job involves prolonged periods of sitting down, you may need to rethink the habit of slouching over your desk or being glued to your computer without breaks.
We ran an independent survey asking the public how working in an office affects their posture. Here are the results:
So, how is office work related to each of these conditions?
Research has shown that back pain is one of the leading reasons for absence at work. So, it isn’t surprising that this was the most common answer in the survey. Osteopaths argue that a sedentary lifestyle increases intra-discal pressure, stiffness of the lumbar spine and reduces the strength of lower back muscles.
Ben Goffen Dr of Chiropractic, gave his expert advice on how office work can have a direct impact on backache. He explains: “Our spines, in particular, were designed for movement. Although office work is a part of many of our lives, nature did not intend for human beings to sit for long periods of time.”
He continues: “When was the last time you heard of someone’s thigh hurting because they were standing upright? Research tells us that although our spines can sit upright, they can’t do this for too long as the ligaments, muscles and joint structures fatigue overtime. This results in pain and irritation.”
A straight back is usually associated with good health, attractiveness and strength, while slouching appears unhealthy, unattractive and is associated with physical weakness. Most of us are reminded from a young age to stand and sit up straight however, slouching may be something that many of us will experience in the future if we continue sitting for such a long time during the day without being aware of our posture.
Activities that can cause the body to face forward and downwards for long periods of time, such as bad posture in the office, can contribute to slumped shoulders and slouching. Last year, a life-sized posture doll shocked the nation by demonstrating how a poorly set-up work station could lead to physical changes to cope with our new work environments. Appearing to stand in a permanently creepy, hunched-over position, the doll serves as a terrifying reminder that staying stationary all day does more harm than good.
Ben Goffen comments: “Over years of desk work, we often see functional changes become structural as time goes on. These structural changes are the result of changes to the shapes of some of the bones in our spines, leading to more permanent upper back hunching, shortening of muscles, development of dysfunctional patterns in the strength and length of our upper back, neck and chest muscles. We actually see changes to our brain’s “map” of what it thinks is our normal postural position, leading to our upright standing posture looking much like a sitting slumped posture.”
The dreaded neck ache after a long day in the office can have a huge impact on a person’s wellbeing. Over 13% of people in our survey claimed they experienced neck ache due to office work. It is far too common for workers to sit in an office chair for prolonged time periods without moving the neck to reduce stiffness and tension. Working at a desk is a common cause of neck pain; far too often we simply accommodate to the set-up of our workstation rather than adjusting the workstation for our needs. Sitting with one computer screen directly in front of you may mean you barely move your neck during the working day.
Your shoulder consists of several joints that connect to various tendons and muscles. While the complexity of the shoulder is what allows us to do so much with our arms, it is also the reason why many people suffer from shoulder pain and injuries. Just like the pain experienced after carrying heavy rucksacks, sitting incorrectly for hours on end may be causing shoulder pain. This pain can be debilitating, particularly when it prevents us from performing our jobs properly.
Most of us don’t give a second thought to how we position our wrists at work until we notice signs of wrist pain. Making sure you correctly position your wrist can seem tedious and unimportant when a deadline looms however, the wrist muscles have a limit to their endurance, and pushing past that limit can cause nagging pains and aches.
If you have problems such as osteoarthritis and previous wrist injuries, this can increase the risk of wrist pain or injury. Before you blame your wrist pain on carrying heavy shopping bags over the weekend, it might be time to rethink how you position your wrists at work.
If your office job or setup leaves you with injuries that are caused by your posture, it doesn’t have to be that way. A combination of special ergonomic equipment and moving regularly may be the answer to preventing posture problems.
Jonathan Griffin, IT Systems Developer at CMD, states: “Using equipment that supports good ergonomics, such as sit-stand desks and monitor arms can be extremely effective in preventing injury. Additionally, ensuring you are sitting correctly can make a substantial difference to your posture in years to come.”
Nikki Thomas career coach specialist, highlights the importance of a comfortable office chair: “Although working on an uncomfortable chair may be convenient, in the long term it is better to work from comfort. You don’t get into a car with the wing mirror in the wrong place or strain to reach the pedals, so don’t do it in the office.”
Workplaces that pay attention to their equipment and whether it has a positive impact on posture can see real success in staff wellbeing and output.
Nikki adds: “In some workplaces, there are people in the office who ensure our desk chairs are a certain way and our screens are at the correct height. However, the problem is many of us don’t take this seriously and we are then suffering in the future.”
Implementing the correct sitting position in the office is essential for maintaining good posture and a healthy back and spine. Sitting in an incorrect position can cause a great deal of unnecessary pain that can be prevented by complying with the correct posture.
Nikki highlights the importance of avoiding pain in the office, stating: “When we are in pain everything suffers including our social time with our families or just trying to concentrate on the task at hand.”
So, how should you sit when in the office?
When sitting at a desk, the NHS recommends you ensure the following:
The following image demonstrates the correct way to sit in an office:
It is drilled into us that we need to exercise often and be more active. While it is understood that exercise is necessary for health, regular exercise is also particularly important for people who spend the majority of the day working at a desk. Ben Goffen explains: “Including exercises like walking, jogging or yoga can help to avoid postural changes and help to maintain our overall health while we have to work for long hours.”
In a world where many of us spend the busiest parts of our day sitting down, our wellbeing and productivity suffer. Prioritising comfort and wellbeing not only benefits employees, a comfortable office worker can also result in reduced sick days and improved performance, benefiting a company’s success. Our survey results indicate that many workplaces need to focus more on employee comfort. However, the rise of sit-stand workstations in offices is a promising sign that some employers are beginning to take comfort more seriously.