Working from home these days is a welcome change for many, but makeshift workspaces can quickly lead to bodily pain and injury. Learn how to optimize your posture to stay healthy while working at home.

As the world was thrust into upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic, billions were forced home to resume work seemingly without warning.

Before 2020, only 20% of workers worked from home. These days? Seventy-one percent call home their workplace, and of those, 40% hope that trend continues for the long term.

Working from home most definitely delivers its perks. Gone are the days of fighting morning traffic, wearing uncomfortable, stuffy clothing, and always having to follow a strict schedule.

But with these perks often comes pain. As in, neck, leg, and back pain.

Hastily assembled makeshift home workstations have contributed to an unpleasant, growing trend of injury.

How we set up our workspace has a huge impact on how we feel physically, and luckily, there is so much we can do to make sure we are setting our bodies up for success.

How working can contribute to pain

When it comes to working from home, the main culprits that cause our pain is poor posture and repetitive motions during prolonged use of our computers, laptops, and phones.

It is easy to fall into the habit of poor posture. Bringing our laptops to the kitchen table or cozy sofa seems like comfortable, no-brainer solutions for getting our work done.

This quick fix might work for a short time, but over many hours, the body will often pay the price.

Paying attention to your posture

Poor posture can quickly lead to increased tension in the neck, shoulder, forearms, and back.

This happens because our head is supported by the ligaments, bones, and muscles of the neck, which allow for our heads to move.

When we sit awkwardly while performing repetitive motions for many hours in front of a screen, we are more likely to end up with rounded shoulders and forward head posture, which can lessen the curvature of the upper spine over time.

This can lead to muscle shortening, tension, and dreaded pain and stiffness.

The untold burden of work-related overuse injury for businesses

When workers are hurting, it is not only the employees who suffer. The businesses they work for suffer as well.

Painful injuries can impact productivity, quality of work, number of absences and long-term disabilities, and can lead to an increase in workers' compensation claims.

This has been a concern for business managers even before the pandemic, as 6.7% of disabling injuries reported in the United States were related to overuse injuries while working - and makes up 33% of all workers’ compensation claims.

This accounts for almost 400,000 injuries per year, amounting to $20 billion in lost funds for businesses.

How to prevent pain while working

As more of us have been working at home this past year than ever, it is even more important to pay attention to how we are sitting and take real preventive measures to keep us injury-free.

Keep your neck straight. You should never have to strain or twist your neck in any way to view your computer screen. Place your screen straight ahead in front of you so that you are looking forward and your neck keeps straight. The top of the screen should be at eye level, about an arm’s distance away from your eyes. Need to raise the height of your screen? Place it on a pile of books if need be for a quick solution.

Place your mouse and keyboard correctly. As much as we use our mouse and keyboard, it is essential to know where to place them. They should be placed at a comfortable distance in front of you so that you do not need to reach far. Your forearms and hands should be level and straight, not aiming up or down. Keep your arm close to your body when using the mouse to avoid nerve compression, which can lead to shoulder and neck strain. If you raised your screen to reach eye level, invest in a separate keyboard and mouse.

Use a chair that supports the natural curve of your lower spine. A chair with good lower back support is key to preventing injury. Make sure to sit back in your chair - do not hunch forward or sit upright -  yet close enough to reach your keyboard and mouse without reaching too far. A cushion or rolled up towel at the lower back can provide some extra support in a pinch.

Rest your feet flat at all times. Do not let your feet dangle. A lack of support for your feet underneath restricts blood flow to your legs and feet, and can cause strain to the lower back. Keep them flat on the floor, or use a footrest to give them a place to land.

Follow the 20-20-20 rule to keep your eyes from straining. Staring at a screen up close for long periods of time can really put a strain on your eyes and can even lead to vision problems. It is important to take regular breaks for your eyes. Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen and gaze at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.

Take lots and lots of breaks. Pressing pause for some quick downtime throughout your workday lets your muscles rest, gets your blood flowing, clears your mind, and keeps tension from building up and causing pain due to repetitive overuse. Set a timer on your phone to remind you to get up from your desk and take a quick stroll, stretch, or grab a drink of water. How often you take a break is up to you. Every 30, 45, or 60 minutes is most common, just as long as you remember to do it.

Make stretching a priority. Regular stretching of the neck, shoulders, and upper back is shown to keep the neck muscles, ligaments, and tendons flexible and mobile. This allows for more range of motion, translating to less pain and stiffness. Plenty of office stretches can be found online that can help guide you, and many can be performed right in your chair.