Is Your Desk Job Costing You Your Physical Health?

4 April 2023 |
Episode 11 |
30:17

Episode summary

Are you struggling with eye strain, neck pain or backache? Could it be caused by the way you sit at your computer? In this episode, I explain how the growth in remote working has increased your screen time and may be affecting your physical health. I explore the causes of common technology-induced physical ailments, including eye strain, hearing loss, neck ache and back pain, and share some ways to help you assess the current state of your body and adjust your workspace or equipment to prevent long-term damage.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • Maximising opportunities to take a break from technology when you have time off work
  • How remote working has increased your screen time and may be affecting your physical health more than you realise
  • Our tendencies to ignore physical aches, pains, and strains until they become severe and to treat physical symptoms instead of preventing the root cause of our discomfort
  • Why you should listen to what your body is telling you instead of relying on digital devices or health apps to tell you when something is wrong
  • Technology-induced eye strain, Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), and your employer’s legal obligations when it comes to eye tests and corrective eyewear
  • How loud your headphones should be to prevent damage to your ears
  • How to correctly set up your workspace to reduce the risk of debilitating back and neck pain
  • The importance of making time for movement in your working day to avoid conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle, including obesity, poor circulation, heart disease and diabetes
  • The physical body scan and action challenge
  • The Digital Diet Lounge – a new virtual community for digital wellness and the best place to discuss podcast episodes and take part in weekly challenges

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re having a great week so far. In fact, if you’re in the UK and quite a few other places around the world, then you’re already halfway through your week because it’s nearly Easter, and there are loads of public holidays coming up with Good Friday and Easter Monday. And that’s always a nice feeling.

[00:00:57] I’m sure many of you are looking forward to having an extra long weekend, followed by an even shorter working week than usual next week. Maybe you’ve even taken some extra time off work, especially if you’ve got kids and they’re on their Easter break from school. And I say all this to say that, whatever your personal circumstances might be, I hope that you’ll make the most of the opportunity to be away from your devices for a few extra days over the coming weeks.

[00:01:25] For many of us, the main reason we spend so much time during our day tethered to our devices is down to the type of work that we do. And since the pandemic, with many people choosing to continue to work remotely for at least part of the week, our screen time has increased, so it’s higher than the pre-pandemic levels.

[00:01:45] Now, we’re all familiar with the benefits of remote working, and I have to confess that I’m a big advocate for having that degree of flexibility. But it does mean that many of the conversations and the meetings that once were informal or took place face-to-face, now take place through a screen. So, even the small breaks from technology that you might have had during the course of your working day have now been completely stripped away.

[00:02:13] And the effects of this new way of working on our mental health in terms of stress and overwhelm, anxiety, Zoom fatigue and, at the more extreme end, total and complete burnout are very hot topics that continue to be discussed very widely. Both in terms of how these problems are created and sustained through different workplace practices and cultures, as well as what the potential solutions might be that could help to prevent people from having these very negative and life-disrupting experiences in the first place.

[00:02:47] What I think isn’t necessarily discussed or emphasised enough, and the subject of today’s podcast, is the physical effects of working in this way. They’re just as important, and can become just as serious and debilitating, if you don’t pay attention to what your body is telling you and act accordingly to correct any bad practices that you might have.

[00:03:07] And the incredible thing about your body is just that. It will often tell you what is wrong and what it needs to feel better. But we’ve become really good at doing one or both of two things. The first thing is that we sweep these feelings and physical sensations under the carpet, in a sort of mind over matter way. Which means that we don’t react and we don’t address the things that our body is trying to tell us. At least not until the problems get so bad that we actually can’t ignore them anymore and we’re forced to do something.

[00:03:40] So think about when a pain is just a little niggle, and you soldier on, but then that pain steadily gets worse and becomes excruciating to the point where you can’t sit or walk properly. And then it’s all that you can think about and you have to address it, because you can’t move on to anything else until you do.

[00:03:58] The second thing is that we don’t seem to live by the maxim that prevention is better than cure. We’d much rather treat our various physical ailments with a combination of drugs, physical therapies, and different wellness practices, as and when they flare up or worsen, than take the time to take the steps to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

[00:04:19] And we all know that this isn’t good for us. We know we shouldn’t let these problems fester until they become disruptive and end up costing us time and money to fix, not to mention an inevitable period of discomfort. But this knowledge doesn’t seem to stop most of us from doing it.

[00:04:36] So today, I wanted to take a look at the physical complaints related to technology that most commonly top people’s lists, especially if they spend most of their working day in front of a computer screen. And I’m going to share a few tips and suggestions to help you firstly bring awareness to what your body is telling you, and secondly to help you put in place preventative measures, so that all these little niggles don’t turn into full-blown ailments that begin impacting your day-to-day life.

[00:05:06] Now, as I’ve said before, I like to keep things real on this podcast. I am by no means perfect when it comes to digital wellness. And this is probably one of the areas that I’m the worst at and struggle to maintain consistency with the most. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to focus on this topic this week, because I want to try and hold myself accountable too.

[00:05:29] So I’m going to share some of my personal experiences, and just know that if you’re struggling with any of these as well, there’s absolutely no judgement from me and you’re not alone. We’re in this together and we can, and we must, do better for our bodies. So, starting quite literally from the top, let’s talk about eyes and eyestrain.

[00:05:51] According to the American Optometric Association, digital eyestrain affects 50-90% of computer workers. And in a survey of 1,000 office workers conducted by the Vision Council, 59% reported experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain. The use of smartphones has also been linked to an increased risk of myopia or short-sightedness in children and young adults. And in some East Asian countries, myopia rates among young people have reached epidemic proportions.

[00:06:25] Now, these are not small numbers, but they’re probably not all that surprising either. With 80% of American adults reporting that they use digital devices for more than two hours a day, with nearly 67% using two or more devices simultaneously, it would be very naïve to assume that there was no effect on our eyesight from overusing technology.

[00:06:48] You’ve probably experienced this yourself at one time or another. Your eyes might feel dry and tired. They might look red in appearance. You might find yourself blinking more and struggling to focus on whatever is on your screen, or have blurred or double vision. You might experience headaches, neck aches, or back aches. And if you wear glasses or contact lenses, you might find yourself reaching for them more and more often.

[00:07:15] Collectively, these symptoms are known as Computer Vision Syndrome, or CVS. And although CVS has not been found to cause any permanent damage to the eyes, all of those painful symptoms can affect your performance at work and at home. For myself, eye strain is one of the biggest challenges, and actually one of the physical effects that I’m most aware of on a day-to-day basis.

[00:07:39] I have prescription glasses specifically for screen-based work, and although I can see perfectly fine without them, I do notice that things are a little sharper when I’m wearing them and that my eyes get tired less easily. And I think this is an important point, because my subscription is very low or very weak. I’m actually a little bit long-sighted rather than short-sighted, which I’m reliably told is an older people’s eye issue. But the optician said to me that the prescription is so weak that if my job didn’t involve being on the computer as much as it does, then I wouldn’t need to bother with the glasses at all.

[00:08:17] Now, telling me this probably wasn’t the best idea because it’s meant that I’m really, really relaxed about using my glasses. In fact, most people don’t even realise that I wear glasses in the first place. But when I go through periods where I don’t wear them and I’m doing a lot of work on screen, I really start to feel the strain.

[00:08:39] More often than not, I end up reaching for eyedrops to try and rehydrate my eyes, which comes back to what I was saying about prevention being better than cure. Because you’re only supposed to use the eyedrops for about 30 consecutive days. And when I realise that my eyes don’t really feel much better, that’s often when I track down my glasses, which is probably not the smartest approach.

[00:09:03] And the crazy thing is that my prescription hasn’t changed in over a decade. In fact, at one point there was actually some improvement in one of my eyes, and I haven’t cut down on the amount of time I spend working on a computer either. With the type of work that I do, especially when I’m working on writing books, that’s almost an impossibility. So I can only attribute that improvement to wearing my glasses and the fact that that’s also prevented my eyesight from deteriorating further.

[00:09:34] So, tip number one, if you feel like your eyes are straining, don’t automatically reach for the eye drops. Make yourself an appointment with your optician and get your eyes tested. In the UK, most of the time you can get this done for free. All of the major optician chains offer free checks or vouchers for free checks, and even if you have to pay for it, if your work requires you to use a screen, then your employer must legally provide you with an annual eyesight test if you request one and pay for the test.

[00:10:07] This should be a full eye and eyesight test by an optometrist or a doctor, including a vision test and a physical eye examination. And it’s up to your employer how they provide you with the test. For example, they could let you arrange the tests and reimburse you for the cost later if you submit the expenses to your accounts department. Or they might have an agreement in place where they send all employees to one optician, for example, one that’s located near your office.

[00:10:35] If you do need glasses, I know the cost can be anything from £25 for a basic pair right up to £100s for a designer pair. And the good news is that, again, your employer will need to pay for your glasses if your tests show that you need special glasses prescribed because of the distance that you view your screen at. So, while they probably won’t pay for that designer pair that you’ve got your eye on, at least some of the cost is likely to be covered by your employer.

[00:11:04] And I know that it can sometimes feel like they’re trying to sell you a bunch of extras that you don’t really need when you’re in the optometry store, but I do also think that it’s worth plumping for the anti-reflective and scratch resistant coatings on the lenses, because this will help with screen work and the glare. And if you’re clumsy like me, it will make your glasses last longer. I’ve actually had the same pair since I first got glasses because my prescription hasn’t changed, and they’re not really scratched, they’re still working, and they’re still obviously doing the job more than 10 years later.

[00:11:36] It’s good practice to get your eyes tested every two years if you don’t need glasses, or you don’t have any eye conditions, or you have a weak prescription like I do. And once a year, if your prescription is higher, or you’re experiencing challenges with your eyesight, or you have any hereditary eye conditions. Your optician will let you know how often you need to be checked and they should send you a reminder when it’s time to book in for your next appointment. But it never hurts to put a little recurring reminder in your calendar too.

[00:12:07] Glasses aside, there are a few other things that you can do to help prevent or at least limit eye strain. You’ve probably covered these in an initial or annual workstation assessment, because companies are legally required to conduct these assessments and make sure that they offer you any necessary equipment or adjustments because of health and safety regulations.

[00:12:28] I have to do one every time I start a new contract as a freelancer. And although it can feel a little bit tedious, and there’s a temptation just to click through the assessment rapidly and get on with it, I do always have to remind myself that it is actually for my own benefit. A well set up workstation typically means that you will have your screen set up at an appropriate distance away from your face and at the correct level for your eyeline.

[00:12:54] Typically, this means positioning the screen between 40-76cm or 16-30 inches away from your eyes. And the top of the screen should be level with or slightly below your eyeline. You should tilt the screen away from you at a 10-20 degree angle and try to make sure that there are no distracting reflections on your screen, for example from a nearby window.

[00:13:17] Similarly, try to position your screen where there’s good lighting, either natural light or from a ceiling light or a desk lamp. Working in poor lighting conditions puts unnecessary strain on your eyes, but you need to again make sure that the light is not reflected in your screen, because this will absolutely defeat the purpose.

[00:13:36] Once your screen is in the proper position, you can adjust the display itself. One thing that I’ve found that makes a huge difference is to use dark mode, where all of your applications and windows have a darker background instead of the stark white colour that’s usually applied by default. You can usually change this in your screen or computer settings at the flick of a switch, and it makes the viewing experience much gentler on the eyes. I found this particularly helpful for the odd occasions where I have to work later than usual, and when my eyes are already feeling tired or dry.

[00:14:12] You can also adjust the zoom settings or the font size on your screen, and this can help make things much easier to read, giving you less reason to strain your eyes. The character size is an important factor because it determines the distance at which you prefer to view your screen. And, of course, you now know that you want to try to maintain that 40-76cm distance as much as possible. If everything is teeny tiny, you’ll constantly be craning your neck and leaning forward so that you can get closer to the screen to read, which is bad news for both your neck and your eyes.

[00:14:48] If you need to read or reference paper-based materials while you’re working, then use a document holder that you can place close to the screen at the same distance from your eyes, rather than putting those documents down on your desk or to the side of the screen. This will help your eyes to remain focused as you move between the screen and the documents, and again stop you from hunching over your desk to look down at the documents below you.

[00:15:12] And of course, there’s the age old tip of remembering to take regular breaks. Focusing on a screen may make you blink less, which can make your eyes dry and uncomfortable. So, at a bare minimum, you need to try to remember to blink regularly, as silly as that might sound. Try writing “blink” in big letters on a post-it note and sticking it to the side of your screen to remind you, at least until you get into the habit a bit more naturally.

[00:15:38] A more beneficial practice is applying the 20:20:20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look at something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This gives your eye muscles a chance to rest. And, if you can, depending on your line of work, consider what parts of your work can reasonably be completed away from a screen to get even longer breaks.

[00:16:02] This has been one of my greatest and most favourite hacks, because I’m definitely someone who just defaults to using the computer for everything. But I thought about it, and I realised that there were some calls that didn’t need to be a Zoom meeting, so I can take them as audio calls and even take a walk at the same time.

[00:16:21] And I started using my notebooks again to map out strategies or to brainstorm ideas. And even though my handwriting is terrible and I write very slowly compared to how fast I can type, I’ve actually found that my creativity is higher when I put pen to paper than when I work on screen. I suspect it’s something to do with there being less distractions and entering a flow state, but I highly recommend that you try it out if you can because the results might surprise you.

[00:16:49] So, having got your eyes back on track, let’s talk about your ears. As with many things in the Apple ecosystem, I don’t remember turning this feature on. But, nonetheless, every so often the Apple Health app informs me that my headphone audio level exposure is over the recommended 7-day limit. I know I like the sound cranked nice and high when I’m listening to music or podcasts, because I want to drown out any external noise, but I don’t think it’s exceptionally high and I don’t listen for long periods of time.

[00:17:22] Plus, I have two sets of headphones. A fancy-ish, over the ear pair, which doesn’t need the volume turned up that much because they’re noise cancelling headphones. And some AirPods, which I mostly use for calls, for shorter journeys, or when bag space is a bit of an issue because the over ear headphones are quite bulky and they come in a huge case.

[00:17:40] So at first, I’ll be honest, I just ignored these notifications. Then last year, when I was hitting the gym a lot for long runs on the treadmill, I started using my AirPods a lot more. And at some point, I realised that the sound in my right ear was much quieter than the left one. And after a few weeks of this, I started to get really concerned because it was getting quieter and quieter.

[00:18:04] I didn’t feel like I was experiencing difficulty hearing in general, but when I swapped the AirPods into the opposite ears, for whatever reason, the left side was still clearer and the right side was barely audible. And that’s when I really started to panic and I convinced myself that I was going deaf, or had gone deaf, in one ear.

[00:18:23] I assumed that my left ear was overcompensating for the loss of hearing in my right ear and that’s why I wasn’t experiencing difficulty hearing in my day-to-day life. And I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but you know how your thoughts can run away with you when you’re concerned about something with your health. And then suddenly, I felt really stupid for ignoring all the warnings from the Apple Health app.

[00:18:45] I booked a hearing test and, as it turns out, my hearing is just fine. In both ears. So you can imagine the sense of relief that I felt. But this taught me a really important lesson about relying on technology versus the importance of listening to your body, which, as I mentioned at the start of the show, we’ve all become particularly bad at doing.

[00:19:06] It sounds extremely stupid now, but I genuinely thought the overcompensation theory explained my experience, rather than giving any thought to the fact that my headphones might just be broken or malfunctioning. And it caused me a lot of unnecessary anxiety. So, really check in with your body and yourself. Don’t rely on technology to tell you how you’re feeling.

[00:19:29] You can use a modified version of the body scan technique that I talked about in Episode 9 when we were talking about mindfulness. I’ll link it in the show notes, but essentially a body scan is where you mentally go through each part of your body, from the tips of your feet to the top of your head, and you notice any discomfort, any unusual sensations, any aches or pains. And then commit to exploring how to address them and prevent them in future.

[00:19:55] You wouldn’t wait for the heart rate monitor on a Fitbit or an Apple Watch to flatline to tell you that you’re dead, or start going sky high to tell you that you’re having a heart attack. So don’t rely solely on technology to tell you what’s going on in your own body. And when it comes to appropriate headphone noise levels, experts recommend keeping sound levels at somewhere between 60-85 decibels to minimise the damage that your ears are exposed to. If you’re listening to music at around 100 decibels, you should try to restrict your usage to within 15 minutes.

[00:20:28] And this is where technology like the Apple Health app can help you, because no-one intuitively knows what 60 decibels or 100 decibels sounds like. So it doesn’t hurt to take a peek inside the app or the Google equivalent from time to time and check. And I’ll also link a great guide in the show notes from Deafblind UK, which will take you through six steps to check if your headphones are too loud. And of course, just as with your eyes, you should also try to get regular hearing tests about every 18-24 months.

[00:21:01] The next common complaint has to do with strains and injuries to your muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, or spinal discs, specifically in your neck or back. Computer back and computer neck are real issues because so many of us spend our days hunched over our screens and our keyboards, and sometimes even over our smartphones.

[00:21:23] Neck and back strain usually fall into the “ignore it until it gets worse” category. And instead of addressing the root causes, so many of us will turn to painkillers or seek out the services of a physical therapist, a chiropractor, or even a massage therapist instead. And while I’m usually the first to jump at any excuse for a massage, this isn’t a long term solution.

[00:21:46] And the long term effects aren’t just chronic pain or bad posture, because according to the World Health Organisation, back pain is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. So, if you don’t want to end up becoming incapacitated by your injuries, or looking like Quasimodo straight out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then you need to take a careful look at the setup of your workspace. And remember that this will look slightly different for everyone, depending on their specific needs and the specific equipment that they have.

[00:22:18] The goal is not to make you spend more money on fancy equipment or devices, unless you particularly want to, or you have a budget from your employer specifically for this purpose. The main focus is always on making sure that you’re comfortable when you’re working, and that you’re not creating unnecessary strain on your neck, and your back, and your spine.

[00:22:39] In general, you’ll be looking to make sure that the height of your desk allows you to sit comfortably with your feet planted on the floor, that your arms are at the level of your desk if your elbows are bent at a 90-100 degree angle, that your thighs are parallel to the floor when you’re sitting in your chair, and that your chair offers sufficient ergonomic support for your back, especially the lower part. And, of course, we’ve already talked about positioning your screen.

[00:23:05] There are other considerations, and I’ll put a link in the show notes to a more comprehensive guide, but in essence, if you’re not hitting any of these markers, then you’ll need to make some adjustments. That could be in the form of a larger investment, like getting a better ergonomically designed office chair or an adjustable standing desk. But it could equally be a simpler and smaller change like investing in a separate keyboard or mouse, so that you can position your laptop at the correct distance for the screen and comfortably use the keyboard and mouse instead of the inbuilt keyboard or trackpad, and avoid being hunched over or avoid the risk of repetitive strain injuries in your wrist.

[00:23:44] For the longest time I suffered with a really niggly lower back pain from what I like to call “floating legs”. If you’ve ever seen me in person, then you’ll know that I’m not very tall, and so most of the time my feet don’t comfortably reach the floor when I sit at a desk. Introducing an adjustable footrest beneath my desk has made it possible for me to keep my feet firmly planted when I’m working and pretty much eliminated that back pain. So, it’s definitely worth 30 minutes of your time to assess your workstation setup because you could be saving yourself from a lot of pain and discomfort.

[00:24:21] The last physical ailment is really a collection of various ailments associated with the lack of movement that is a direct consequence of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Years ago, when fitness trackers started to become more mainstream, everyone became obsessed with how many steps a day they were doing. And this magic number of 10,000 steps a day seems to have become popular culture’s go-to step count goal.

[00:24:48] And all that movement is great. It really is. But it’s actually still not a lot compared to how much time you spend sitting down each week, especially if you have a desk based job. And it’s this lack of physical activity, which has been linked with an increased risk of excessive weight gain, obesity, poor blood circulation, heart disease, and even diabetes. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anything to do with any of those things if I can help it. And if that means sitting on my arse a bit less, and moving around a little bit more, then I’m totally down for it.

[00:25:27] I’ve talked in previous episodes about the restorative effects of being in nature, and I’ll link the episode in the show notes because going for a walk in the park or along the canal is one of my favourite pastimes, and something that I always recommend. But just getting up and stretching your legs and your back, by walking around the room for five minutes a couple of times a day during your working day, is a good way to break up long periods of sitting down.

[00:25:54] To make sure you don’t forget, you could try setting reminders in your calendar or scheduling meetings to end five minutes earlier and using that time to get up and stretch your legs. If you’re fortunate enough to have, or have access to, a standing desk, then make use of it. Do small bursts of your work standing up instead of sitting down. You don’t even have to move your workstation anywhere, you just use the little crank or if you have a really fancy one which is electronic, you just gotta press a button.

[00:26:23] And of course, outside of working hours, try to get in as much movement as you can. It doesn’t have to be a fitness class, a little walk will do. Even if it’s just walking around the living room during a TV ad break, or pausing between episodes during a Netflix binge, a little movement is better than nothing at all.

[00:26:43] That’s it for today’s episode, which only leaves me to set this week’s challenge. If you’ve been listening to the last couple of episodes, then you’ll know that each week I like to set you a little digital wellness challenge to encourage you to take action based on whatever we’ve been talking about, instead of just listening, and nodding your head, and thinking, “that’s nice” before going about your day.

[00:27:05] So, your challenge this week is to do a little head to toe body scan and observe whether you’re experiencing any physical pains, aches or strains as a result of being tethered to your desktop devices each and every day. I want you to really listen to your body and what it’s telling you about the way that you’re currently working.

[00:27:25] And from whatever you identify, I want you to commit to at least one action that will help reduce or eliminate at least one of these aches, pains or strains. So you might feel like your eyes are straining and make an appointment with your local optician. You might do a little workstation assessment to figure out if there’s anything in your setup that might be causing you back pain. It’s up to you to define what that action looks like for you.

[00:27:49] I’ve given you lots of ideas on today’s episode to get started, but I know that you’ll come up with so many more and I can’t wait to hear what they are. The place to share the results of your body scan and the one action that you’re going to take is in our brand new virtual community space, The Digital Diet Lounge.

[00:28:06] It’s the place for me and you, my listeners, to come together and connect over all things digital wellness in between episodes. There’s a specific room for the podcast and that’s where we can chat about this week’s challenge, and you can connect with other listeners who are also taking part. It’s completely free and I’ll put a link to the space in the show notes, so that you can get involved in the challenge this week.

[00:28:28] You can still share your experiences on your social media platform of choice, if you want to. All of my handles can be found on the show notes page, so that you can tag me. And, as always, if you prefer to keep things private, then you can always email me directly at podcast@thedigitaldietcoach.com, and I promise to reply to every single message.

[00:28:50] I hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, and that you feel empowered and inspired to do something about any of the niggling aches, pains, or strains that you might have been feeling, because you definitely don’t have to suffer through them. And of course, I hope that the little break over Easter gives you a chance to reflect and reset, so that you’re going into spring with your best, pain-free body.

[00:29:12] The show notes for today’s episode can be found over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/011, and that’s also where you’ll find links to everything that we’ve talked about today, including The Digital Diet Lounge community where you can take part in this week’s challenge. I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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