“If my chair suddenly changes position, I end up in pain,” says Elna Cain.
Like many Canadians, Ms. Cain has been working from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her physical ailments commenced the same way repetitive strain injury begins for most people who work at a computer: as neck and shoulder pain that she chalked up to stress and a bad night’s sleep.
Then, her arms started going numb.
“I have to pace myself and take time off or the pain spreads to my neck, eventually to my back, and causes multi-day headaches,” explains the Thunder Bay, Ont.-based writer, graphic designer and blogger at twinsmommy.com.
Ms. Cain is not alone.
In a recent National Work From Home survey of Canadian workers by Conestoga College’s Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness and Performance, 70 per cent of respondents had discomfort at the end of the day, with women reporting more frequent and more severe pain than men.
A 2021 study published in the British Medical Journal found that women working at computers are nearly 30 per cent more likely to suffer from neck pain than their male counterparts.
According to Rachel Mitchell, managing ergonomist and return to work consultant at ERGO Inc., that’s not surprising.
With many parents working from home over the past two years, women are “more likely to be the one at the dining room table or working at the kitchen table, because they’re also more likely to be supervising a child,” says Ms. Mitchell, a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and registered kinesiologist.
More stress, less rest
Close to 70 per cent of women report experiencing work-life conflict now compared to pre-pandemic times, according to the Work from Home survey. Before the pandemic, research had long shown that women working full-time employment were doing “double shifts” with the added responsibilities of housework and childcare. Later, that concept expanded to a “triple shift” that included emotional labour.
Over the past two years, many women have taken on even more responsibility, including caregiving for aging parents and overseeing daily online schooling for their children.
“Besides having to deal with work, women also have to deal with the home life as well, so they’re not getting that break if they’re working from home,” says Kathy-Lynn Shaw, a CCPE and registered kinesiologist based in Labrador City, N.L., and president of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists.
When you consider what stress can do to the body and combine that with less-than-ideal workstations – a couch, kitchen table or bed – a rise in repetitive strain injury seems unavoidable.
Persistent or recurring pain
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines a repetitive strain injury (RSI) as a variety of painful injuries that affect tendons, tendon sheaths, muscles, nerves, joints and other soft tissues. They cause persistent or recurring pain most commonly in the neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, wrists, elbows and lower limbs.
Ms. Mitchell notes that a standard office desk is about 29 inches in height, while a kitchen or dining room table is 30-31 inches, meaning women are likely “shrugging up” their shoulders much more when working at home.
Even if they are using a proper desk to do their work, Ms. Shaw points out standard office furniture and equipment was designed for men, not women.
There are anthropometric differences – variations in stature – between women and men, and those slight differences can cause serious issues, she adds. Even using a mouse can be problematic because they were designed for men who are typically broader-shouldered.
One study found that up to one-third of those who work at computers experience symptoms in the arm, wrist and hand due to the abnormal posture forced by mouse use.
New York-based author and RSI expert Deborah Quilter no longer uses a mouse.
“Why are we putting all the work of ten fingers and two hands [into] one digit?” she asks.
After she developed an injury from computer and mouse-use in the early 1990s, Ms. Quilter wrote two books about repetitive strain injury and recovery – RSI: A Computer User’s Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book.
“The number one question I get from people is, “What can I do for work now that I can’t use my hands?” Ms. Quilter says. That’s why her mantra is, “Take care of your hands,” because no one has an extra pair to spare.
The trouble with laptops
Ms. Mitchell at ERGO Inc. says one the first questions she asks clients is how often they work from a laptop.
“Most people thought working from home would be temporary,” says Ms. Mitchell.
“Laptops were designed to be used for short-term durations,” adds Ms. Shaw. “Now, they’ve become our primary computer.”
Both Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Shaw recommend placing your laptop at eye level and investing in an external keyboard and mouse to avoid repetitive strain injury if your primary computer is a laptop.
They note that the 90/90/90 rule is a good start: keeping your elbows, hips and knees at 90 degrees. But both agree the best advice is to listen to your body.
“If you’re in discomfort, your body is telling you something,” says Ms. Mitchell. Indeed, once you feel pain, the damage is done, she adds. “The choices that you’re making will have long-term effects.”
Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Shaw point out that there are no one-size-fits-all adjustments that work for everyone, because every body is different. A sit/stand desk can be great, but it’s the moving you do in between the sitting and standing that matters most. Take breaks. Stretch. Know your limits.
Drink water, advises Ms. Shaw, “because it forces you to get up to pee.”
A call to take action
It’s worth the effort to try and prevent repetitive strain injury, says Ms. Mitchell, because being in pain and discomfort reduces productivity, increases errors and decreases job satisfaction.
Alexandria Carstens was in her twenties when she developed a repetitive strain injury. Now 52, she says she regrets working through the pain. It started with pain in her hands, until eventually her hands froze and she couldn’t hold a cup.
“It’s like your tendons are snapping,” says the Vancouver-based business owner at Speakeasy Solutions Inc. “All the veins and capillaries in your hands and forearms are tight like rubber bands and it feels like they’re snapping.”
Now, Ms. Carstens relies on voice-recognition technology to do most of her typing. (As a speech recognition consultant and trainer, she helps others navigate those tools as well.)
For her part, Elna Cain has made adjustments to improve her home-based workstation. She takes photos and uses tape to mark where her keyboard and footrest should be for proper alignment.
Still, she regrets not taking action sooner, having spent too long working through the pain from her couch and kitchen table. Ms. Cain’s husband, who experienced RSI previously, now lives with permanent tendonitis.
“RSI is very real and no fun,” she says.
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