We Need to Talk About the Strain Computers Are Putting On Our Bodies
I never really thought about ergonomics, until I started feeling pain — by then it was already too late.
As the pandemic forced millions of office workers, including myself, to work from home over the last year, the situation was far from ideal for many of us. Many of us worked from couches, perched on kitchen benches, and hunched over dining tables–the opposite of ergonomic.
I’ve come to enjoy working remote after being a skeptic, but my biggest regret, after more than a year of it? Not paying more attention before now to the importance of ergonomics, taking breaks, stretching, and listening when my body was starting to tell me it was under stress.
The switch to permanent work from home has meant grappling with wrist and shoulder pain resulting from using a computer all day that I hadn’t experienced before. In the office, I was rarely at my desk for more than a few hours because the day was punctuated by meetings, random chatter with colleagues, or a run for a coffee. Now, it’s sitting at my desk in virtual meetings, typing and clicking for eight hours a day, which is hard to avoid.
I’m so entrenched in the tech industry and media that I had sort of convinced myself that gear alone would fix a problem.
The first few months of working from home seemed fine, aside from the constant low-level stressor of an airborne pandemic going on outside unchecked. But in late 2019, I started experiencing numbness in my ring and pinky fingers, which was manageable for a while, then grew worse over time into shoulder and neck pain as well.
At first, I reacted by doing what any technology person probably would: I bought a ton of fancy ergonomic equipment, from split keyboards to a vertical mouse and a standing desk. While it helped mitigate making the pain of a poorly configured workspace any worse, it didn’t actually fix it because I wasn’t addressing the root cause: spending hours at a desk, without stretching or strengthening my body to counteract those stressors.
It wasn’t until earlier this year when I finally realized that no amount of fancy equipment would solve the problem that I decided to go and see a physical therapist. What I’ve learned since then is that I should’ve been paying more attention to my body, and ergonomics, much earlier in my career–which would have helped prevent the pain I’m now experiencing.
I’m so entrenched in the tech industry and media that I had sort of convinced myself that gear alone would fix a problem, but the truth is that we should be emphasizing the importance of ergonomics and understanding the strain of computers on our bodies more. The software and tools we use every day don’t help much either; why can I get a warning that I’ve blown hours on Twitter, but not a reminder from my Mac to stretch?
Physical therapy finally gave me an understanding of the damage I’d caused, and how to address it–a long list of stretching and strengthening exercises that make it easier to deal with. I work on my medial nerves and shoulder three times a day now, as well as enforcing a lot of breaks away from the mouse and keyboard, which makes a difference.
But there’s no magic instant fix, other than the stretching on a regular basis. If I’d been told earlier in my career, however, maybe I’d have been able to avoid experiencing pain in the first place.
Depending on where you live in the world, governments do require workplaces to ensure you are comfortable and ergonomically optimized, but over my career, I’ve found that it’s rarely referenced outside of a gesture toward making sure you use your mouse properly and sitting up straight. Even during my computer science degree, ergonomics, or preventative stretching, wasn’t mentioned once. Working from home becoming common has only hidden that from view even more, and many of us aren’t aware of the risks until it’s too late.
As more of us use computers and other devices for 8 or more hours a day, it’s a topic that’s hard to avoid: many of us are going to experience some form of pain eventually even with the best hardware, and much of it could be prevented if we were given the right tools and education to know what to do about it.
If I could go back in time and tell myself to stretch regularly, and take computer breaks more often–or to avoid typing in an awful position on the couch all day–I wish I could. I was sort of embarrassed to talk about the pain I experienced before seeing a physical therapist because I thought it was just me, but now I wish I had talked to others sooner–it’s more common among my friend group than I thought, but many of us are quietly dealing with it.
But, I can help you before it’s too late: take a moment to check your desk and chair are the right height, that your keyboard is positioned well, and your mouse isn’t too far away.
Then, set up reminders to take breaks, and actually do it regularly. Get up, shake it off, and do some stretching. Take some of those meetings as a walk. Write notes on paper, instead of with a keyboard. If you experience any pain or numbness, seek a professional straight away, rather than deferring it until it really hurt, like I did. Your body will thank you for it, and you’ll be better off in the long run.
If you’ve suffered from similar pain after the last year of working from home, I’d love to hear what types of stretches, gear, or activities have helped in the replies.