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Injury Prevention for Desk Workers

Young woman working at a desk with 2 computer monitors

You’ve no doubt heard someone say “Sitting is the new smoking.” Numerous studies have shown the detriments of a sedentary lifestyle: increased risk for back problems, osteoporosis, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer, even double of the risk of premature death. Though office work won’t be found on any top 10 lists of most dangerous jobs, the negative impacts of too much sitting are detrimental to both employees and employers—the cost of absenteeism and extra health care due to the workers’ sedentary-related health problems runs into the billions each year. But sitting too much isn’t the only cause of poor health in office workers.

Swearing Off Sitting Isn’t Enough

The average person sits for 12 hours a day. This has been the focus of many campaigns to increase health, from standing desks and wearable devices to corporate health care incentives. Some alternative desk companies have gotten into advocacy for standing over sitting, using health statistics to back them up. But you don’t need to get a treadmill desk to improve your health—simply getting up and taking a short walk around the office every hour is enough to decrease your health risks.

There are other health risks to long hours of desk work, as well as methods for combating the ills they cause.

Eye Strain

Screens are everywhere in our lives, from our personal cell phones to TVs in restaurants, so we already strain our eyes on a regular basis by looking at these flickering devices. However, if you work in an office or any environment where you continuously look at screens all day, your health risks could increase seven fold. Excessive screen time often results in disorders like Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which is characterized by eye irritation, blurry vision, and headaches. The blue light emitted by screens can also cause eye strain and may disrupt sleep patterns.

Solution: There are numerous steps you can take to prevent CVS. Position your monitor so that it’s slightly below eye level and ideally 25 inches from your face. Reduce the brightness and glare of the screen using computer controls or a filter, and take breaks from looking at the screen every 30 minutes or so. To reduce the effects of blue light, you can buy a pair of computer glasses or have your regular glasses outfitted with blue light blocking lenses. There are also blue light blocking apps available for some devices. Try avoiding blue light for 2 hours before bedtime for a better night’s sleep.

Repetitive Stress Injury/Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Continuous keyboard and mouse use is a regular routine for many, from office workers to professional gamers. This activity, however, can lead to pain or numbness in the hand, radiating up through the wrist and arm. If you have these symptoms, you might have carpal tunnel syndrome, pressure on the median nerve, which runs down the arm and into the hand and is responsible for sensation and movement of the fingers and thumb. Repetitive motion and poor ergonomics can inflame the nerve, but there are preventative measures you can take.

Solution: While you not might be stressing your hands and arms as much as a professional gamer does, all regular keyboard and mouse users can benefit from warming up and stretching to prevent repetitive stress injuries. At the very least you should take a break after 20 minutes of continuous typing/mousing to rest, clenching and unclenching your hands 10 times to increase blood flow. Also make sure your workstation is set up with proper ergonomics. Your posture, keyboard positioning, and wrist angle can all impact your risk of getting carpal tunnel syndrome. If you are particularly prone to carpal tunnel, you might consider wearing braces to keep your wrists straight while you work.

Mental Health Concerns

While there has been a big push for better work/life balance, many people are still married to their jobs. It doesn’t help that cell phones make us available everywhere, meaning that many of us simply can’t leave work at the office—it follows us wherever we go. Understandably, this causes stress, which in turn can harm one’s mental and physical health. Others might have different stressors at work, such as an overbearing boss, an obnoxious coworker, challenging work quotas, or some other situation making the work environment toxic. Given the length of time we spend around these stressors, it’s only natural that they would affect us. And still others are dealing with mental health issues that have nothing to do with work but they are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma.

Solution: Learn to set boundaries, and to say no. It might be difficult, but try to remember that it’s YOUR time. Put some physical distance between you and your phone if you have to, or schedule blackout time, when you’re completely off the grid. Use your vacation time, and don’t feel guilty about it. We’re given time off for a reason—we need it! Exercise more. Physical activity reduces depression and anxiety, and if you go right after work it might help you break the cycle of staying constantly plugged in. Employers can help their workers by making sure mental health services are part of the employee medical benefits. They can also provide dedicated quiet places for meditation or relaxation, workshops on mental health for their employees, and training for managers and supervisors so that they can better spot the signs of stress among their team members. Poor mental health can affect job performance, productivity, and engagement, so it behooves employers to invest more in their workers’ mental wellness.

Baby Steps

Taking small steps to preserve or better your health now will help you down the line, both physically and financially. And if you’re an employer with desk workers, consider what you can do to promote better health practices for your staff. It can only help, both them and your bottom line.