It all started as a normal Saturday after yet another week of working from home. But as the day went on, Marie* started noticing she couldn’t find any position – sitting or standing – in which she was comfortable. The discomfort worsened and she could do longer bend over without blinding pain.
The pain kept her up most of the night. She began having spasms in her lower back and hips the next morning and by Monday she was in the emergency room, unable to breathe properly or go to the bathroom.
When Working From Home Goes Wrong
Marie had been working from home for less than two months when this happened. Like so many, she was working from her laptop at the dining room table. Ergonomics wasn’t on her radar and the price she paid was dear.
“All of us just kind of picked up and went home and were like, ‘Let’s do this. We can do it from home,’ without paying any attention to our bodies,” Marie said.
“When I look back, I think, ‘What were you thinking?’ I thought that it would be okay to come home and work from my dining room table on my laptop. That was really not a wise choice.”
Marie works in accounting and administration and has been with her current job for around six years. She does experience aches in her lower back and hips, which is why she wasn’t alarmed when this started happening to her on the Saturday it all went south.
No stranger to her hips flaring up, Marie has a routine she does to give herself some relief. Stretching, yoga, advil, applying heat, cold, and mint oil – nothing helped. In fact, the pain got increasingly worse.
“Clearly stretching and yoga doesn’t negate a bad setup,” she said.
Marie’s right. Sure, work-relief exercises, such as stretches, are even more important if you have a poor setup. But these are designed to benefit everyone doing office work, including those with a full ergonomic workstation.
Stretches Won’t Save You from a Poor Setup
If you’re feeling pain while you work, your body is telling you something and sooner or later you’re going to have to listen.
Marie didn’t connect her pain with working from home until speaking with doctors in the emergency room and later with her chiropractor.
“They both kind of felt that being set up with a laptop, sitting at my dining room table on dining room chairs that are made to just look pretty, might not be safe to sit at for hours and hours on end during the day,” she said.
The doctors gave Marie prescriptions for muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories to stop the spasms and help her muscles loosen up. They told her to return for x-rays if things didn’t improve.
Marie also managed to get in to see her chiropractor – whom she hadn’t been able to see since the COVID-19 pandemic took off – as an urgent care patient.
Within two more days, things started returning to normal, though she took the rest of the week off.
“My husband and boss were laughing because I’ve had maybe two sick days in the last six years and I finally had to call in sick when I was already at home,” Marie said.
During the week, a colleague of hers was able to deliver her ergonomic chair from the office as well an external keyboard. And just as importantly, everyone else started thinking about ergonomics, too.
“We have to pay attention to pain levels. You have to pay attention to the way you’re sitting, to your posture. Yeah, that’s definitely something that everyone’s considered this week,” she said.
“You have this great setup at work and then you go home and think you can just work from your laptop. You can’t.”
Safely Working From Home: Listen to Your Body
A big thing Marie noticed was that her feet were firmly on the ground again. In her dining room chair, her feet had been dangling in the air – a major risk factor for back and hip pain.
Fortunately, she now feels comfortable working from home for the time being. She just wishes it hadn’t taken a trip to the emergency room to get there.
“Ergonomics is not something that anybody really thinks about until something bad happens, something painful happens,” she said.
“We’re such a society that preaches self care and yet I thought it was okay to sit at my dining room table for two months. You need to be more aware of what you’re doing to your body.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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