3 simple ways to support the physical well-being of remote employees

So the pandemic’s peak may have passed but we’re still feeling the effects. 

Not the symptoms that first spring to mind when you think of covid, though.

Research suggests more than half of homeworkers have new aches and pains – especially in their necks (58%) and backs (55%) – from switching to homeworking.

And this is affecting Gen Z the most, with many of these first-time jobbers having never felt the comfort of an office chair before.

According to a survey of 1,000 UK adults by Mind Your Back, two-thirds of Brits aged 18 – 29 are now experiencing back pain they didn’t have before the pandemic. 

So what’s going on?

“Almost half (of home workers) don’t have constant access to a table and supportive chair during their working day,” says general practitioner and Mind Your Back adviser Dr Gill Jenkins. “Unfortunately, 20% have to work while sitting on a sofa or bed. This plays absolute havoc with posture and spine health.”

But when more than a third of UK workers would quit their jobs if asked to return to the office full-time, it’s clear the solution isn’t to go back to the old ways of working.

That’s OK, they shouldn’t have to. 

Here are three painless ways to balance the mental and physical needs of your staff – guaranteed to keep their posture and productivity in check.

1. Break with exercise 

It’s hard to make sure everyone takes a break when you’re working apart – not to mention when you yourself are juggling a million other things at once. 

But you can still lead by example. Try making 11 am the time when everyone sets their Slack status to ‘away’ and goes to the kitchen for a coffee break. Better still, encourage a bit of time out of the home for a light stroll and some fresh air. 

Sounds great. But what’s the best amount of time to move around?

The consensus online seems to be taking a break every 30 minutes to an hour. During these breaks, employees can stand up, stretch, stroll or perform some light exercises. This can help prevent muscle stiffness and repetitive strain injuries, whilst also promoting blood circulation. In fact, the latest research suggests that even walking for as little as 11 minutes a day can have huge long-term health benefits. 

What if staff are just too tied to their desks to go out, though? They shouldn’t be, ideally. 

But we know all too well how easy it is for time to get away from us when we’ve got our heads down. The good thing is, in the worst-case scenario, they can still get a little exercise from where they’re sitting.

“For every five minutes of intense work at your computer, have a short pause. Stretch your hands, wrists and fingers. Roll your shoulders and rotate your neck,” says Lucie O’Shaughnessy, Senior Musculoskeletal and Pelvic Health Specialist Physiotherapist at Bupa UK. She also recommends:

  • Giving your eyes a break every 20 minutes by looking away into the distance for 20 seconds.
  • Standing up, stretching and moving for 20–30 seconds every 20-30 minutes.
  • Keeping alert by doing gentle exercises every two hours.

But taking short breaks won’t just benefit staff’s physical well-being; they’ll give the brain a healthy boost too. That’s because even a micro-break as short as 10 minutes can reduce stress and make us feel energetic again.

Interested in learning more? We’ve gone into detail about promoting healthier working habits here.

2. Optimise the environment 

When we’re sitting on kitchen stools or dining room chairs, it can be tricky to maintain proper posture. However, there are ways we can mimic the support of an office environment at home.

If you can, ensure home workers are equipped with a mouse, an office chair and, if possible, a standalone keyboard or monitor.

Can’t afford all the accessories right now? That’s OK. In the meantime, just recommend they raise the height of the laptop with a stack of books or something similar to get that ergonomic effect. It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s better than nothing right now.

“The critical issue is to separate the keyboard from the monitor so you can get your monitor at the right line of sight: eye level or slightly below,” tells Dr Susan Hallbeck, PhD, a doctor and the president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, to the BBC. “Then adjust your keyboard or input device so that your elbow angle is around 90 degrees,” she says. That should provide proper forearm support and keep your wrists in a neutral posture.

3. Prioritise their posture

This ‘neutral posture’ should always be the goal when WFH. 

But how can you achieve it, exactly?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has put together some easy 10-point guidelines to ensure staff are working in the right position. 

Why not try it yourself? Just start by making sure the top of the screen is level with your eyes (about an arm’s length away) and then:

  1. Relax your shoulders (positioning yourself high enough so that you don’t need to shrug them)
  2. Position your keyboard just below elbow height
  3. Make sure your seat height equally supports the front and back of your thighs. Try using a cushion to raise the seated position if it doesn’t feel right
  4. Ensure the back of your seat provides good lower back support. Again, use a cushion to provide additional support if needs be
  5. Create a gap of 2-3 cm between the front of your seat bottom and the back of your knees
  6. Ensure the computer and screen are positioned directly in front of you (on a desk or another surface)
  7. Position the screen and keyboard so that they’re central – and don’t twist your back
  8. Make sure that the mouse is in line with your elbow

“This is a position of ease for the body to maintain for a prolonged period of time – where the position supports the natural curves of the spine and maintains your body in good alignment,” Kirsty Angerer, an ergonomics consultant based in Leicester, England, also told the BBC. 

Good to know. But what’s the worst place to work around the house? Unfortunately, experts suggest it’s likely the place that feels most tempting to go.

“A sofa might feel like the most comfortable place at the beginning,” Ameet Bhakta, a postural alignment specialist, tells Wired. “But after a while it won’t, because when you sit on a sofa what it does is it encourages you to slump. Nearly every sofa I’ve ever been on encourages you to slump to round your shoulders, put your head forward, and that’s going to put more strain on your body.”

Why ergonomic is worth the effort 

There’s no legal obligation for employers to provide the right equipment for home working. Not at the moment, anyway. 

But beyond simply being the right thing to do, it’s in your interest to make employees’ lives more ergonomic. 

Why? Because productivity and pain just aren’t a good fit. And your staff are never going to want to toil away if their back, neck or any other body part is in turmoil. 

So when you’re staring into an employee’s makeshift working environment on Zoom, just ask yourself this: have you got their backs? Turns out you can support it in more ways than one.