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How HR leaders can make remote work pain free

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In response to the COVID-19 crisis, workers around the world are leaving their office chairs and desks for couches and kitchen tables. As HR professionals work to keep employees healthy and productive while they're at home, back and neck pain from these ad-hoc arrangements will quickly become another challenge to tackle.

Back pain is extremely common — 80% of us will experience it in our lifetimes. Even under normal circumstances, research has found that back pain in the workplace can make it more difficult to focus and make decisions. And stress and anxiety can make the experience of pain even worse.

“Problems come up when you’re sitting in one position for too long slouched down, or with your back rounded forward,” says Jim White, exercise specialist at Fern Health, a company that provides digital musculoskeletal pain programs to employers. “This can overstretch the ligaments in your spine and put strain on your spinal discs, which protect your vertebrae from rubbing together.”

HR managers can help support employees working remotely by recommending how any workspace can be made safe and comfortable. White suggests the below tips, whether employees are working from their own home office or are making calls from the couch.

Check your posture. Posture alignment makes a big difference, White says. A daily posture checklist should include:

  • Align elbows and wrists. When sitting and typing, elbows should be at ninety degrees and aligned with the wrists. Shoulders should be relaxed and level.
  • Straighten up. There should be a straight line from the top of your head to your back. Don’t let the pelvis rotate forward – this creates a curve in your lower back that contributes to pain.
  • Check your chair. If you’re sitting in a chair that isn’t designed for an eight-hour workday, try placing a rolled-up towel behind your lower back. Living room couch your best option? Arrange pillows so your lower back is supported, and try not to sink in and slouch if your couch is particularly soft.
  • Keep the top of your computer screen at eye level. Positioning your computer too high or too low can contribute to neck and shoulder pain. If you’re sitting on the couch, put a pillow on your lap to raise the screen and protect your legs from your device’s heat.

Get a change of scenery (without leaving the house). Create your own “standing desk” by sending a few morning emails from the kitchen counter or a high dresser. And throughout the day, listen to your body. If your lower back feels stiff when you stand up, or if your feet or legs “fall asleep” while you’re sitting, these are signs that you’ve been in the same position for too long.

Continue to exercise. Without commuting or having access to the gym, it can be difficult to keep activity levels up – but it’s critical. Exercise increases blood flow to the muscles and is one of the best ways to combat pain, says White. Aerobic exercise can also help tackle anxiety, which makes pain worse.

Try simple stretches throughout the day. One perk from working from home is that employees most likely have more privacy and can take a quick break for a big stretch or even a few yoga poses. Try two or three of your favorite stretches from below and try to stretch every hour or so, White recommends. Just note that they may not be safe or tolerable for everyone.

  • Pec stretch: Stand in a doorway and place your forearms on each side of the doorframe. Push your chest forward slightly so you feel a stretch in your chest and between your shoulder blades. Hold for as long as is comfortable, up to 10 seconds. Repeat as tolerated, up to three times.
  • Child’s pose stretch: Start on a mat or towel on the floor on all fours. With your big toes touching, spread your knees apart and sit back onto your feet as best you can. Hinge at the waist and extend your arms in front of you or next to you. If you can, touch your forehead to the floor. Hold for up to 15 seconds.
  • Chair rotation: Sit sideways in a chair. Keeping your legs still, rotate your torso to the right and reach for the back of your chair with your hands. Hold your upper body there and hold for up to 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side, up to three times.

A comfortable workspace is critical to a productive day, especially in places that aren’t designed for the nine-to-five. During this chaotic time, HR leaders can provide guidance on creating a space that supports back and neck health, and helps employees avoid the added stress and distraction of being in pain.

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