Of all the things I miss about going into work, I didn’t think my office chair would be so high on the list but it’s right up there between seeing my colleagues and buying £4 iced lattes for the commute. After four months of switching between the dining chair and the sofa, never have I pined more for my padded, back-supporting ugly office chair.
“It’s unlikely that we’ve got the same ergonomic setup we have in the office while we’re working from home and alongside altered exercises regimes, this is one of the most common reasons people will be experiencing back pain from working at home,” says Hollie Grant founder of Pilates PT .
“Ideally we should sit with our knees, hips and elbows at 90-degree angles with the back in a neutral position and our shoulders away from our ears. You shouldn’t have to look down at your laptop, it should be in line with the face/eyes and your keyboard should be at elbow height. This is unlikely at home, and for this reason, different areas of the body can become very tight and sore."
But there are adjustments we can make which might mean using pillows to prop yourself up and support your back or putting your laptop on top of books or boxes, says Hollie.
The change in our routine could also be responsible for the pain we’re feeling. “We’re no longer walking to and from the office or the train station, nor moving around the office for amenities or to talk to our team,” points out registered osteopath Avni Trivedi .
If you’re anything like me, you were thrown into working from home without much more consideration than opening your laptop and getting cracking. This could be where the issue began. “If we set up a desk at home without taking a few minutes to think about our new work environment, we’ll mould our body to that environment which puts a strain on our neck and back,” says Melinda Cotton of Fulham Osteopaths . “To avoid strain and injury we must ensure that our work environment is a good fit for our body just like our shoes must be a good fit for our feet otherwise we end up in pain. We need to adapt our home space to fit what our body needs to feel comfortable.”
From the bed to the coffee table or the kitchen worktop, there are a handful of different places you might have found yourself working - some more ideal than others. Here's what the experts say about them and how to make them work for you.
1. Working on your laptop on your bed
This is one location all of our experts frowned upon working from. “Working in bed will absolutely ruin your sleep and your sex life as you’ll associate the bedroom with admin rather than relaxation,” begins Hollie. “On top of that, your bed gives zero support for the body and there’s no way you’ll be anywhere near a neutral position when working. You’ll likely be hunched over to look at your screen which causes strain in the back of the neck and upper back.”
“Working on your bed results in curving your back into a big C shape from our neck to our lower back,” adds Melinda. “In this position, our neck and lower back are under a constant strain plus the muscles at the front of your neck tend to shorten, pulling your neck forwards which contributes to bad neck posture.”
How to making working in bed work: If you have nowhere else to work other than your bed, rest your laptop on a pillow to bring it to a more manageable level that doesn’t require you to lean down to it.
Support your lower back by placing a rolled-up towel underneath your sitting bones so your lower back can't slouch and bend your knees and hips at a 90-degree angle. Place your laptop on your thighs with the screen angled for your comfort.
2. Working from home at the dining table
For most people without an at-home desk and office, the dining table will be where you’re working and it’s probably the best option as your dining chair has a back to it and isn't too low. But it is missing some vital elements.
“There’s no lumbar support (unlike the curve at the base of your office chair) so it’s quite hard to sit straight. You might find yourself slouching more which will make your mid-back start to ache,” says Hollie.
Dining room chairs can also be too high to work on comfortably for long periods of time, as Melinda points out: “We often end up raising our shoulders for our hands to reach the keyboard which contributes to neck and shoulder pain and even tension headaches.”
How to make your dining chair more comfortable: “Make sure you have your feet on the floor to create a stable base so your spine doesn’t collapse when you sit,” advises Avni. If your feet don't reach the floor, see if you can put them on a cushion or box.
To sit higher, sit on a couple of cushions until your shoulders feel relaxed and your elbows are at 90 degrees. Put a cushion or rolled-up towel behind your lower back also makes up for the lack of lumbar support and stops you slumping back.
“To take the strain off your neck when using a laptop, use an external keyboard then place your laptop on a pile of books,” suggests Melinda.
3. Working on the sofa
When you’re sitting at your dining table, the sofa looks oh-so inviting with its squishy pillows and sumptuous cushions, but resist the lure if you can. “The sofa might seem appealing but it can put pressure on the upper back, shoulder blades and lower spine,” warns Avni. “This is especially true if the sofa is very deep as it’s harder to maintain support for the spine.”
“You’ll likely find your lower back starts to ache sitting on the sofa as there’s zero support for the spine,” agrees Hollie. “Sofas don’t generally allow you to sit with your knees bent and your feet on the floor so you’ll be tucking your legs and twisting your spine.”
How to make sofa-working work for you: “If you must work from your sofa, sit on the edge of it so your feet are on the floor and use pillows behind your back for support,” Hollie advises. In addition, place a couple of cushions on your knees to raise the height of your keyboard and screen to take the strain off your neck. However, it might be better to sit on the floor against your sofa, which brings us to...
4. Working at the coffee table
The key advice is to find a position that best replicates the position we described at the start of this article: knees, hips and elbows at 90-degree bends, with the back in a neutral position and our shoulders away from your ears.
“Some people might find sitting on the floor the easiest option with the laptop on a coffee table.”
This is a method Avni suggests too. “Use a low table as a makeshift desk, sit on a cushion or a yoga bolster and vary your sitting position from time to time from sitting cross-legged, sitting in a squat or straddling the cushion. This keeps the pelvis, hips and spine more free and mobile which prevents back pain.”
If your hips feel tight (ie your knees are quite high when you sit like this) put a cushion or two underneath each thigh so they have something to rest on.
5. Using your kitchen worktop or sideboard as a standing desk
Now you may not have thought of this but we urge you to try. Avni suggests creating a standing desk and it's an approach GTG's Editorial Director Victoria Woodhall favours as a yoga teacher and longtime standing desk fan.
"I have a standing desk by Varidesk which I can't live without and which has been the most brilliant investment. However, I'm now sharing the at-home workspace with my husband who has a really bad back and has stolen it. I recommend finding a high surface such as a sideboard or kitchen worktop and adding books or a solid box so that your keyboard is at elbow height and your shoulders feel relaxed when you are typing. I surprised myself by being able to stand like this all day. You might like to put something soft under your feet such as a rug."
Avni advises not to stick with one sitting station of you can help it. Vary your day at different stations and making the most out of self-care such as online yoga and Pilates (Hollie’s Pilates PT is live streaming virtual classes and all you need is a mat).
Avni also recommends bathing with Epsom salts (we love Westlab's salts ) and using a foam roller or spiked massage ball as great ways to ease aches and pains in the body.