A Guide to Home-Working during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Safety-Comfort-Productivity

Working from home/Picture Courtesy

The World recently woke up to unforeseen new reality “The novel COVID-19 Virus” which has in many ways changed peoples’ lives. As the virus begun spreading from the Chinese epicenter in Wuhan to Europe, America and finally to our continent, Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments have responded in the best interest of their citizenry.

Robust and multi-pronged strategies have been put in place across the global community, among them; rapid testing for individuals who have been exposed; social distancing; and isolation of cases as well as quarantine for those with history of close contact with confirmed cases. Epidemiological trends from the case of Italy, and best practice benchmarks from Wuhan China point at social distancing as an effective strategy to flatten the curve.

In line with this fact, and in the interest of safeguarding lives, governments across the world enforced their respective Public Health Acts and decrees on closure of educational institutions and scaling down of staffing in government agencies as well as private corporate companies such as the banking sector, insurance and the media. Kenya is part of the global community which has taken this move as occasioned by the Presidential public address earlier in March.

With the closure of institutions and companies, or scaling down of staff, employees who offer non-essential services (majority of the office working population) were advised to work from home, as one of the social distancing measures advocated for combating the spread of the deadly novel COVID-19.

It is now weeks into “home-working” for the Kenyan traditional office worker and we can only imagine the challenge of transitioning and adapting to the new working environment for most of us considering the obvious differences in terms of equipment and set-up. In the spirit of “occupational-home” health and safety, and in order to meet the targets, the need for professional guidance on feasible but innovative ways of adapting the new “home-office” can no longer be ignored.  From a professional viewpoint, these are home-ready strategies and solutions which can be used to adapt the “home-office” set-up into ergonomically friendly work-space with no cost incurred.  This way, staff can and will continue working from the comfort of their homes with minimal exposure to the risks of work-related musculoskeletal disorders, particularly of the spine, shoulders and the upper limbs.

Welcome to working from home! We know that most traditional office-working Kenyans in the various sectors of our economy may have some experience in working from home, and to some, this may be the first time courtesy of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Either way, there are some simple but effective things one can do to ensure home-office; comfort, health and productivity. One critical point to bear in mind for a start is that, you require a dedicated desk and chair set up at home.  Otherwise, it can be difficult to be productive while at the same time maintain healthy posture and observe good spinal health and ergonomics if one is to minimize the risk of developing work-related problems particularly of the spine, shoulders and upper limbs.

Working from a couch/dining table/kitchen stool

It is still acceptable and possible to work effectively from a couch, dining room table or kitchen counter as long as you observe the following advice:

  • First, figure out where you are going to work to avoid too many distractions.
  • If possible, try to avoid soft seating. Couches and beds do not support your body well. If you do decide to work from your couch use a small pillow to support your lower back and maintain the natural curve of your spine. Ensure that your knees are bent and supported on the floor or if you opt to straighten them on the couch, then have a cushion or pillow under your bent knees.
  • Avoid placing your laptop on your lap (if you do, put a magazine under to avoid contact). Placing a laptop on your lap will encourage excessive bending of your upper back and neck, a position which, if sustained you could begin to experience discomfort, aches or even pain.
  • In an office, your chair is most likely adjustable and positioned in a way that your thighs are horizontal and your feet flat on the floor or footrest. It is unlikely that this is the case with your dining chair or kitchen stool as they may not provide the same ergonomic support, and so, your pelvis may be tilted while you work. Make sure you stand up regularly and move your body (walk around).
  • A couple of ways of encouraging regular movements while working is to have your beverage, soft drinks or water out of reach so that you have to move to get it., and always consider standing up while taking a call.
  • Listen to your body! If you become stiff or uncomfortable… MOVE! If you experience more frequent discomfort, speak to your Physiotherapist.

Working from a Home Office Desk

If you work from a home office desk and have a height-adjustable chair, you can follow these tips, to ensure you reduce the stress on your body. Understand that your eyes will dictate your posture. If you can’t see your screen clearly you will move towards it. If you have a laptop, you will be looking downwards at the screen, which can strain your neck, shoulders and lower back. A key concept is to position your screen correctly.

  • Place your monitor directly in front of you. Raise your monitor to eye-height if you have an external keyboard and mouse.
  • Next, position your elbows above the desk height. You don’t want to have to continually lift your shoulder girdle up in order to type or navigate the mouse.
  • The writer, Dr. Nassib Tewa is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Physiotherapy, College of Health Sciences, JKUAT

    Depending on your height, particularly those who are short, you may realize that your feet are hanging off the floor, then place them on a footrest (at the home setting, this may be replaced with a small box, small dustbin etc). The foot support will relieve tension off the thigh muscles and hence prevent lower limb fatigue.

  • Understand too, that your body is engineered for dynamism and therefore does not like to be held in fixed, static postures. Your body will send warning signs such as, numbness, stiffening, and losing concentration. If this happens pay attention and move around. If you can, try stand, and work, but understand that standing too is static and will cause similar warning signs similar to sitting too long. Pay attention to your body.

Remember to listen to your body, and when you feel uncomfortable, get up, move around and stretch. If you experience moderate to severe pain, please report it to your Physiotherapist.

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