Despite it being more than two years into the pandemic, too many of us have still not adapted our home environments to be a workplace AND place of work. I see so many doctors and healthcare professionals on Zoom calls hunched over their laptops in their kitchens or on the floor. Stuck in this position for hours and hours , it’s no wonder they complain of physical ailments such as neck or back pain.
A real eye opener for me was trying to teach a group of university tutors how to do three-way supervised GP consultations with students isolating from home using a combination of Microsoft Teams and AccuRx. After the presentation, a fellow tutor asked me whether he should start using a headset for his telephone consultations because his neck was starting to hurt from holding his phone in the crook of his neck while to trying to type. My first thought was, ‘Does he not know that that can cause a stroke?’
This took place only recently, demonstrating that our work from home habits and knowledge of how to use equipment safely have not improved even all this time after the pandemic first hit.
So, what steps should individuals and GP practices take to improve the setup of equipment for homeworking and help prevent musculoskeletal and other problems?
At the start of the pandemic, like most of us, I just grabbed the £10 IKEA stool that we normally keep one of our house plants on, using it for gruelling sessions seeing 40-50+ patients plus 10-hour telephone duty clinics. As the pain set in, I bought a fancy cushion for around £30, which effectively tricked me into thinking I would be ok. However, there is a reason why office chairs can be quite expensive – the one that I purchased after six months of awful coccygodynia as a result of working from home was at least a few hundred pounds but it did provide true relief from the pain.
Look for a chair that provides appropriate lumbar support and good cushioning. Reading reviews online before making a purchase can also be helpful.
Zoom Neck or Tech Neck really is a thing, as you will see if you look it up on Google. It’s a change in posture caused by staring down at a screen that can be associated with pain and a frequent uncontrollable need to rub the back of your neck. The screens in our actual workplaces are often separate from the desktop box, whereas most of us were sent home with a laptop and the reassurance that the pandemic would ‘all be over soon’. There are a few ways around this. For example, you could have a separate monitor, or you could use a laptop riser (this is what I went for). This is something you prop your laptop on to ensure you are staring straight at the screen with your neck in a neutral position. If choosing this option, you will need to buy a separate keyboard because you won’t be able to type on the laptop while it is on the riser. However, simple USB keyboards come quite cheap and will generally be more wrist friendly then the flat keyboards attached to your laptop.
No one should have to rely on the trackpad of their laptop to move the cursor around the screen. It contorts your hand into an extremely uncomfortable position that will cramp up your hand muscles and cause hand and wrist pain. Invest in a big and comfortable mouse, either wired or wireless, and this will not only help with pain, but also make you much faster and more efficient.
Although there are some cases studies describing strokes happening after a prolonged period of holding a phone in the crook of one’s neck, the real reason you need to use a headset is efficiency. Being able to type, or even touch type if you can, while speaking to a patient over the phone can help save a lot of time during consultations. Headset quality doesn’t matter too much, choose a product that is comfortable for you and reliable.
Zoom fatigue was one of the first symptoms most of us experienced before any of the more physical ailments outlined above. When meetings started taking place happening on and Microsoft Teams, it all felt so novel and exciting. However, it soon became draining and exhausting. A natural reaction during these remote meetings can be to check our phones, scroll the internet, look at emails, or catch up with social media. These are things we wouldn’t necessarily do if we were all sitting in a room together, but online meetings take away those natural barriers of mutual respect and consideration for others. We get impatient, we get frustrated, so we try to calm those urges with distractions that make us more frustrated and agitated and, in turn, also fatigued. It’s therefore a good idea if you are having a meeting to put away your phone, turn on your camera and really listen to what the person who is talking to you is actually saying.
Like it or not, working from home or a hybrid model is here to stay for reasons such as cost and being good for the environment. Hopefully, these little tweaks can help you have a healthier relationship with working from home.
Dr Michael Poplawski is a GP in Greater Manchester, and a GP Tutor. Access his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/c/gponthemove
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