Coworking and repetitive strain injuries
by Raquel Baetz
Ever get a pain in your hand or shoulder after a long day at the laptop?
For me, what began as an occasional ache in my fingers and wrist eventually turned into a relentless pain that made my forearms feel like dead weight and left me unable to do things like wash my own hair.
Like me, anyone who uses digital devices is susceptible to repetitive strain injuries. But people working in coworking spaces and other remote locations should be particularly wary for two reasons: there’s no one to look after you but you, so if you work round-the-clock, no one’s going to stop you; and coworking spaces aren’t always designed to keep you safe.
After a long time away from computers, I eventually got my pain under control and got back to work.
I’ve learned a lot since, including easy and inexpensive things anyone can do to help protect themselves from musculoskeletal pain and repetitive strain injuries.
All you have to do is… relax
Your primary aim should be to work in a position that causes the least amount of strain on your body. This doesn’t mean being “comfortable,” because what’s comfortable for you might not be the most relaxed position for your body, it’s just what you’re used to.
Here’s a quick way to judge whether or not your body is in a relaxed position. Stand up and imagine you are about to go for a walk. Notice that when you’re standing, your head is on top of your spine, your arms are alongside your body, your shoulders are relaxed, and your hips are at the bottom of your spine.
Now, maintain that alignment when you sit down. Your upper arms should remain alongside your body as your forearms are brought parallel with your work surface. This is the positioning you should maintain as you work. If, for example, you allow your hips to slide forward in your chair, it’s safe to say they are no longer aligned with your spine.
Achieving a relaxed position means you may need to develop new habits. This will take time and practice.
Set up for success
Good workstation set-up is key to helping you achieve and maintain a relaxed, low-stress position throughout your workday. Coworking, remote working, home working, working on the road – however you do it – none of these gives you an excuse not to set up well.
In a coworking space, typically the work surface is the one immovable piece in the puzzle. Your chair and your computer screen can be adjusted even if they aren’t made to be, but your work surface probably can’t be. So, we work around the work surface.
Here’s how to set up your workstation in three easy steps:
- Heard of text neck? Don’t be fooled by the name. You don’t get text neck from sending texts; you get it from looking down all the time. So whether you are using a desktop, laptop or standing desk, you have to keep your head up. Your head weighs about 10lbs, but when you look down, the strain your head puts on your spine increases according to how far down you are looking. Let’s say you’re using a laptop. To make sure you are working with your head on top of your spine, you need to raise your screen up to eye level. Coworking spaces typically don’t provide laptop stands, but a box or some books will work just as well. You will need to buy a detachable keyboard and mouse to use on the work surface once your laptop is up. This will also prevent you from spending all day using your laptop touchpad – another big no-no.
- Get forearm/work surface alignment. Your forearms need to be parallel with your work surface with your shoulders relaxed. If you’re working with your shoulders raised, it’s because your forearms aren’t where they need to be. To fix this, you need to raise (or lower) your chair to get them in the most relaxed position. If your chair is too low and it isn’t adjustable, then stick a cushion under yourself. If your chair is too high, find something else to sit on.
- When it’s okay to look down. Once you’ve done the above, check where your feet are. If they aren’t both flat on the floor, stick a book or box under them too. Keep legs and ankles uncrossed – remember, what feels right to you is not necessarily the most relaxed position for your body.
When you get in your car, the first thing you do is adjust the mirrors, temperature, radio, etc. This is the thinking you need to apply every time you sit down to your computer.
Don’t just sit down and start working. Check your alignment. Check where your screen is. Then make adjustment as necessary.
This is really important in a coworking or remote space where you are setting up from scratch every day.
Shed unnecessary physical habits
Everyone has physical habits that they default to when they’re thinking or concentrating. For example, maybe you lean in to your computer screen with your chin or maybe you tilt your head to one side while typing. Most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Become aware of what your body is doing and avoid physical habits that have no purpose and could be hurting you. For example, leaning in puts your head out of alignment with your spine. Although it may feel like it’s helping you concentrate, the truth is, it isn’t.
This is where coworkers can help each other out. Ask the person sitting next to you to keep an eye on your alignment. If they notice you leaning in, lifting a shoulder or sticking your tongue out as you type, tell them to tell you. I’ll admit that asking the person next to you to watch your alignment is a bit weird, but it breaks the ice and it’s for the greater good. And you can return the favor with tales of their alignment.
If you feel pain, more will come
While you are working, if you feel pain anywhere in your body, get up and take a walk, even if it’s just one quick lap around the space. This will give you a chance to breathe and reset. It’s also a chance to make adjustments.
Never work through pain. If you feel pain, take action. Stand up, move, stretch, dance a jig if you have to, but don’t keep working. If your pain doesn’t go, then take a longer break and move some more. The musculoskeletal system is the body’s movement system. It’s designed to move and it needs to do so to be healthy. Here’s a great video explaining why in five minutes.
This is one area where coworkers and remote workers have the advantage as they can move as often as they like without the judgmental eyes of colleagues or the boss.
When is your digital downtime?
When asked what the biggest change was that she made in training the 2015 world-champion US women’s soccer team, Dawn Scott, fitness and performance coach, said, “…emphasizing recovery. To me, recovery is such a massive aspect of overall fitness. It’s what prepares you for the next session or game. If you don’t recover, you start the next session tired and that sets you up for poor performance or injury.”
It’s the same with digital device use. It’s a physical activity so our bodies need time to recover from doing it. Your body can take some every day, but too much every day and you’re likely to start feeling it, particularly if you’re not careful with your set up. So when you work a full day and then spend your evening shopping on your iPad, you haven’t given your body any recovery time. And it will catch up with you.
It’s not only what you do today
The main thing you have to remember about repetitive strain injury is that it’s caused by cumulative trauma. This means that it’s not exclusively what you do today or tomorrow that hurts you; it’s what you do every day for five, ten or 20 years that’s the problem. Ask yourself how long you have been using digital devices and how long you want to keep using them.
However you have to manage it, find digital downtime in your day, every day. Personally, I don’t have a smartphone because I know I can’t trust myself to stay off it. Don’t panic! You don’t have to give up your smartphone. Just remember, if you have a moment in your day to stand with your head up, doing nothing except breathing, take it.
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