Endless Opportunities – The Many Ways to Improve Wellness at Work

In my exploration over the past several weeks, I have discovered numerous ways in which we as individuals can improve and maintain our wellness at work. Many of us have careers we love and I am grateful to be included in that group. In the various roles I have performed, I have spent the majority of my days seated, either in meetings, on calls, in front of my computer, or with domestic or international travel. Through primarily seated work, I developed some of the hallmark challenges that many of us face after hours spent working on a computer. I set out on a path to look for solutions. I love my job and the company I work for and will be able to excel at it for years to come if I am able to take care of my health and wellness at work and spend most of my work-days pain free. A summary of research presented by WebMD demonstrated correlations between extensive time seated and risks of heart disease, shortened lifespan, dementia, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis, weight gain, anxiety, varicose veins, and even certain types of cancer. My hope is to share what I learn with others so that we can all leverage the information and knowledge available to enjoy long-lasting health and wellness at work.

Frequent Breaks from Sedentary Work

Some of the topics I have explored include the challenges and health risks associated with remaining seated for long periods of time. I have looked into research on alternatives to fully seated work including standing, sit-stand, treadmill, and bike workstations. If work does not lend itself to alternate workstations, there are numerous recommendations for how to reduce the risks associated with too much sitting. One of the most effective and least costly recommendations is to take frequent breaks. I explored this option in my own work and found that taking breaks is easier in theory than in practice both from the perspective of reminders to take breaks, as well as the change in schedule that may be needed to accommodate them. I set a timer to remind me to take breaks hourly and found that several times when the timer went off throughout the day, I was in the middle of a phone call, concentrating on a task where I did not want to lose focus, or in back to back meetings without time for breaks in between. I learned that structuring meetings for greater efficiency and effectiveness could allow a few minutes in between to take short breaks and move.

Workstation Ergonomics

Taking a closer look at workstation ergonomics was a very helpful step and it takes into account nearly every aspect from desk chair and chair settings, to desk height, keyboard and monitor positions, lighting both from the room as well as the monitors, and body position and desk equipment and accessories. Ergonomic calculators are readily accessible online and you can input your height to receive recommendations for ergonomic desk setups calculated from your height. This should be adjusted for comfort as needed, and I learned that minor adjustments can make a great impact.

Posture

Seated and standing posture was a theme that kept recurring in my exploration and one that I have found has not been a simple fix. Many aspects of life and work environment can influence posture including your chair, workstation setup, activities and tasks performed, energy levels, and body awareness. Posture in turn can affect breathing, muscle pain and tension, and chronic poor posture can affect body position and structure, and overall wellness. There are numerous stretching exercises, as well as strengthening exercises that can help correct chronic poor posture. These in combination with massage therapy, increased body awareness, and a posture corrector or reminders to check in on posture throughout the day can make steady improvements in a challenging area to correct.

The Wellness Journey

Maintaining wellness at work is an ongoing process to consistently take care of physical, mental, and spiritual health inside and outside of the work environment. Since we spend so many hours of each day working, it is important to maintain wellness practices at work. This includes regular breaks incorporating movement, alternating between sitting and standing, or sitting and movement if a walking or biking workstation is an option. It encompasses an ergonomic workstation to reduce the impacts of repetitive motion and lengthy time in a single position. It also factors in mindfulness to ensure awareness of our postures and ensuring we can maintain energy and focus thorough appropriate breaks to recharge the mind and sufficient nutrition to maintain energy levels.  

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Mindfulness: An Important Factor in Wellness at Work

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is defined as a technique where one’s full awareness is focused on the thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced in the present moment without judgement. Three further definitions based on insights published in Psychology Today include mindfulness as “letting go of taking things for granted”, “returning to the present moment”, and “the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” Ultimately, there are many definitions of mindfulness depending on what source you turn to, and they primarily focus on your attention or awareness, the present moment, and acceptance or freedom from judgement.

How Does Mindfulness Impact Wellness at Work?

Practicing mindfulness, or taking a step further and teaching how to practice mindfulness can bring positive impacts to employees and employers. Employee benefits include stress reduction and increased focus. Employer benefits include reduced burnout, increased engagement, and improved health and the corresponding reductions in health care costs.

Studies on mindfulness and the impact on employees have shown decreased stress levels while at the same time increasing qualities associated with positive organizational behavior. A 2014 randomized, controlled study of employees from The Dow Chemical Company evaluated the impact of a 7 week online mindfulness program. They found reductions in perceived stress and burnout, and increases in mindfulness, resiliency, and vigor. Another randomized study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2012 compared a control group with a group that performed a self-training including mindfulness meditation and informal daily exercises including a broad range of job types through several German cities. The study showed a reduction in emotional exhaustion and increase in job satisfaction after only 10 working days of self-training to mindfulness practices that were brief and designed to be integrated into daily work-life. Additional benefits of mindfulness and meditation which are backed by research have been summarized in Mindful.org and include enhanced self-confidence, and mindful supervisors resulting in higher employee job satisfaction and reduced emotional exhaustion.

There is strong evidence that investments from organizations into mindfulness programs for employees and/or leaders results in benefits to both employees and the organizations. Not every organization is currently investing in these programs, and it may be on the individual to explore or undertake his or her own mindfulness training and practice. If this is the case, there are several resources online that may be helpful to begin the mindfulness journey, which I will share here and will be following while continuing to search for additional resources.

Mindfulness Resources

How to Practice Mindfulness: The Ultimate Guide to Being More Mindful Throughout the Day

How to Practice Mindfulness according to mindful.org

Mindfulness Exercises from the Mayo Clinic

Five Simple Mindfulness Practices for People Who Hate to Meditate from Forbes

Constructive Rest Audio Guide from NYPosturePolice

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Pain Pain Go Away – I Have A Massage Today

Before undertaking this exploration into workplace wellness, and deciding to take ownership and action, regular massage was probably the only thing I was doing right for my health. There were times when I doubt I could have made it through another work week without the pain reduction and relaxation that came from massage. I am only one example, however, and additional information is essential for us to understand the benefits of massage, and the role it plays in wellness at work.

A video from Cleveland Clinic describes the stress relief, relaxation, and pain relief that massage can provide for people with neck and shoulder pain. This neck and shoulder pain may be related to seated posture in front of a computer, driving, or other activities that pull our upper bodies forward. Dr. Brent Bauer from Mayo Clinic shared similar views. The primary benefit is stress reduction, followed by pain reduction. As stress can suppress the immune system and reduce wound healing, anything they can do to reduce stress is helpful. Dr. Bauer explained that in numerous studies, the Mayo Clinic researchers have compared standard therapy with massage and almost all of the studies show reduction in stress, anxiety, and muscle tension. In the past couple of decades, the thousands of studies on massage have provided a body of evidence which supports massage as an important component of patient care in appropriate patients and conditions including back pain, fibromyalgia, stress, and anxiety.

According to information shared on the Mayo Clinic website, massage is an effective treatment for muscle tension, pain, and stress relief. There is evidence that massage may also be helpful for numerous additional conditions although further studies would be needed for confirmation. Risks may outweigh the benefits for certain patient populations including those with bleeding disorders, deep vein thrombosis, burns, healing wounds, fractures, severe osteoporosis, severe thrombocytopenia, or those taking blood thinners.

Most serious problems from massage come from the use of too much pressure. It is recommended that you let the therapist know immediately if the massage is uncomfortable, feels like too much pressure, or is painful. From my own experience, most therapists can easily adjust to lighter or deeper pressure when requested and would prefer you enjoy and benefit from your massage than suffer in silence and risk bruises or worse. If the therapist reacts poorly to a request to reduce pressure, or does not follow the request, this is not the right therapist for you and making repeated requests to lighten pressure or stopping the massage entirely are options for all of us. I have not had to request lighter pressure more than twice and have not yet needed to stop a massage. I know I would do so if I were in pain. Massage therapy is a wonderful treatment for pain relief, and I doubt any of us are looking for a new source of pain.

Dr. Mark Hyman Rappaport from Emory University shares some details around biological impacts of massage. His findings came from comparing people who received one massage a week for five weeks to those who received two massages a week for five weeks compared to a control group. They found immune system gains from weekly massage that were additive from the first massage. These immune system gains were not sustained with twice-weekly massages but resulted in even greater increases in oxytocin (associated with feeling good and bonding with others) and decreases in arginine vasopressin (“aggressive-related hormone”) and cortisol (stress hormone).  

What does this mean? Get a massage once a week and you strengthen your immune system. Although the twice a week massages lose some of the immune system gains of the once-a-weekers, they are happier, get along with others better and are less stressed. I can’t help but ask if anyone is surprised by this result? If I could get massages twice a week on an ongoing basis, you can bet I would be happy and fun to be around. My take-home message is that I would sign up for this study in a heartbeat if you could guarantee I would not end up in the control group. A massage every week would be wonderful, two would be even better, and for the sake of science, I would even sign up for a new group that received daily massages.

Massage has clear benefits for many of us who struggle with our posture, spend large amounts of time seated or stationary, have neck, shoulder, or back pain, or struggle with stress or anxiety. There are health risks for certain individuals and populations, and as with any new treatment, we should consult with a physician before beginning massage therapy to ensure the treatment is appropriate and safe for our individual situations.

Image by Mariolh from Pixabay

Break out the tape measure – Minor workstation tweaks with a major impact on comfort

After making workstation improvements with the help of an ergonomic consultation, I spent time researching and exploring additional workstation tweaks and improvements I could make. I learned that there is value in us taking responsibility for our own health and wellness and continuing to improve our work environments on an ongoing basis. This is valuable for our wellbeing and to be our happiest and most productive selves in our work environments as well.

Measuring Workstation Height and Monitor Distance

Breaking out the measuring tape for fine tuning my sitting and standing workstation was enlightening and helped make more precise adjustments. Desk height is fairly easy to set without measuring tape. This is great news for workstations which will alternate between sitting and standing that do not have settings. When I measured my sitting and standing desk heights based on 90 degree angles at my elbows to keep my wrists in neutral positions, I was almost exactly at the recommended heights from the ergonomic calculator I was using.

The monitor distance is harder to gauge, and with a dual monitor setup, I needed to move both monitors several inches closer to be within the recommended 20”- 30” range.

Pictures Help Visualize Potential Issues

If you can have a coworker or friend take pictures of you while you are in your workstation from a few different angles, it is easier to see what aspects of the workstation may need adjusting. How is your posture? Are your arms resting on your armrests with elbows at 90 degree angles? Are your elbows close to your sides? Is your wrist in a neutral position? Are your feet flat on the ground with your legs at 90 degree angles? Is your monitor at or just below eye level and tilted away from you at the top at a 10 to 20 degree angle? I was able to make minor adjustments by seeing my body position while seated and standing at my workstation to help ensure proper alignment.

Keyboard and Mouse Adjustments

On the recommendation of a physical therapist, I explored alternatives to my current mouse and keyboard. I tried an ergonomic keyboard with the keyboard essentially split in half so that each hand can angle outward slightly. I found that the keys, particularly the space bar, required too much force to press easily. I spend a large amount of time typing and need to be able to type comfortably, quickly, and accurately. My officemate, who is stronger than I am, liked the keyboard and replaced his with that one.

A significant amount of trial and error taught me that seemingly small adjustments in the height of my keyboard made a large difference in the position of my wrists, and the pain that I was experiencing. The ideal is to keep wrists in a neutral position while working. Even slightly high or low heights of keyboards can cause wrists to angle and move out of a neutral position while typing. In order to prevent this, careful adjustment of chair or desk/keyboard height can be performed to ensure that the keyboard location allows wrists to remain in a neutral position and not angle up or down. I found when my keyboard was too low, I would have to angle my wrists up to type which put additional strain on my wrists.

I tried a keyboard with a trackpad on the right-hand side, and found that using the trackpad instead of a mouse did not resolve the wrist pain. When I paid close attention to the movements my right hand was making, I was lifting my wrist and angling it outward to use the trackpad. The mouse and keyboard I am currently working with have seemed to resolve my wrist issues. I selected a keyboard with a low profile so that my wrists do not need to be raised to type. I tried more creative mouse options and eventually settled on a handheld mouse with a trackball. This may not be a common choice but seemed to solve my issue of wrist pain because my wrist no longer needs to move when using my mouse.

After the adjustments made during my ergonomic consult, I felt more comfortable in my workstation, but this did not alleviate all my neck, shoulder, and back pain, and the wrist was still giving me trouble. Although it struck me as a pain in the neck to break out the tape measure and modify my workstation to fit ergonomic recommendations, the opposite was true. It helped relieve the pain in my neck.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Tips for Ergonomic Workstation Adjustments

I have been delving into the wealth of information available to us to discover how to maintain wellness, or in some cases, alleviate pain and restore health from seated professions. I even requested help in setting up a more ergonomic workstation since I was having neck, shoulder, and lower back pain, pain in my right wrist, and frequent headaches. I picked up several tips from that ergonomic consult, and will share those with you here.

Tips for ergonomic workstation adjustments:

Desk height

We adjusted my desk height so that my arms were able to reach my keyboard at a 90 degree angle from both seated and standing positions.

Chair adjustments

The chair was adjusted so that my feet were flat on the ground with legs at a 90 degree angle. The arm rests were adjusted to a height which allowed my forearms to rest without raising my shoulders, and they were close enough to my body that my upper arms were along my sides rather than elbows extended away from my body.

Monitor distance

Since I tend to lean toward my monitor, she suggested that my monitor should move forward on my desk to encourage me to sit back in my chair rather than lean forward. I am not certain how effective this was for me since I still found myself leaning toward the monitor and lost some valuable desk real estate in the process.

Lighting

My desk faced a window and enjoying natural light, the office blinds were open so that I was able to see outdoors. She asked if I had frequent headaches, and when I said yes, she suggested that I direct the blinds upward to reduce the brightness when looking at my monitors. Lighting had a bigger impact on wellness than I realized and is an area where many of us have little control. I had two coworkers who worked with their office lights off because the overhead fluorescent lights gave them headaches. With a window office this is an easy practice, but when they were in an interior office, the mood felt more conducive to napping.

Ergonomic Keyboard

An ergonomic keyboard was recommended to me, which I ordered and tested out. The recommended keyboard was raised in the center and angled downward on the sides so that each hand angles slightly, and maintains the wrists in a neutral position. The effectiveness of such a keyboard seems to depend on the preference of individual users. I found that the keys, particularly the space bar, required too much force to press them, and it negatively impacted my comfort and ability to type quickly and accurately. My coworker, who is significantly stronger than I am, liked the keyboard and replaced his with that one.

Anti-Fatigue Mat

A mat to alleviate pressure while I work in a standing position was also recommended, and I ordered and tested the suggested anti-fatigue mat. It was large, heavy, and had a bumpy surface of approximately 1” diameter raised hemispheres. This mat may be very effective for some users, but for my purposes, it was not compatible with a desk chair so I needed to move it out of the way while sitting at my desk and return it when standing. It was large and heavy so moving it was cumbersome and there was not a reasonable location to store it while not in use. The textured surface was also fine if I wore trail running shoes or hiking boots, which happened never. It was not ideal under most of the professional shoes I arrived in on a daily basis.

There are numerous anti-fatigue mat options available in stores and online, and a review in Wirecutter provides recommendations based on the models they tested out. What worked best for me was recommended by my physical therapist, and was actually a thick, lightweight, balance pad. The ideal standing pad is the one that meets the needs of each person’s individual preferences and workstation setup, and there does not seem to be a one size fits all solution.

After the adjustments made during my ergonomic consult, I felt more comfortable in my workstation. I still had some research and exploration to complete on my own to identify an appropriate keyboard and standing pad that suited my needs. I have found that taking advantage of the most current information and knowledge allows us to continue to improve our work environments on an ongoing basis.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

Posture Corrector – An effective and constant reminder not to slouch

Early Monday afternoon I felt tension in my neck and realized that I was again leaned forward over my desk with my head angled toward the computer screen. I switched to a standing posture and decided it was time to test out my new posture corrector. Clearly checking in with myself on posture was not getting me through even the first day of the work week. I had recently purchased a posture corrector on Amazon and I did not make it 5 minutes before the straps were digging into the area under my arms. Fortunately, this posture corrector came with pads that I could cover the straps with, so after adding the strap covers, I put the corrector back on. The Velcro strap covers are neoprene, like most of the material in this posture corrector, so they provide quite a bit of cushion and resolved the discomfort of straps digging in.

I noticed a couple of differences immediately. The corrector is far less comfortable in a poor posture. If I let my shoulders roll forward, the straps are uncomfortable on the front of my shoulders. If I try to reach my arms forward, rather that have them at a 90 degree angle, my movement is restricted. This was helpful because it immediately prompted me to correct the position of my keyboard, which was pushed back on my desk surface, rather near the edge of my desk where it belongs.

Having a friend take pictures of you while sitting or standing at your workstation can give you a sense of how your posture looks while you work. This was helpful for me to see the difference in my posture with and without the posture corrector. I was surprised at how differently I was positioned with a posture corrector than when I try to sit or stand without one. My shoulders feel pulled back, more so than when trying to sit or stand with correct posture. Pulling the shoulders back help remind me to keep my head upright rather than pitched forward which I believe is the greatest benefit of all.

The posture corrector made me notice actions and movements that result in poor posture which I had not realized. Because of this, the constant reminder was more helpful to me than setting a timer or relying on my own notice to alert me to posture issues.  Some examples include looking down at my cell phone to make or receive calls, or send messages. The first day, I began to feel tired after wearing the posture corrector for only 10 minutes, I took it off for an hour or so, and wore it again for a little over 20 minutes the next time. It is probably a good indication of how poor my posture is to begin with that standing in a correct posture tired me out after 10 minutes. Amusingly enough, after such a short time, my neck felt more relaxed since my head was no longer pitched forward toward my computer monitor. It was not comfortable, but I do not believe it is meant to be comfortable. It seems that the intention of a posture corrector is to make us noticeably less comfortable when our posture slips, and this corrector was effective in doing just that.

Image by Renata Hille from Pixabay

Quick Transitions for Sit-Stand Workstations – Maintain Productivity and Increase Wellness

When my friend was training for an ironman, she focused a fair amount on shortening the time it took her to transition between swimming, biking, and running. Your transition time can make a major difference is your overall race time, and shorter transition times during your work day can have a major impact on productivity. In particular, when we talk about sit-stand workstations and transitioning between sitting and standing throughout the day, your transition time may not only impact your focus, concentration, and productivity, but it may also impact your willingness to take advantage of the benefits of your workstation.

Let’s face it, if your transition time takes so long that you do not feel you can easily fit it in frequently throughout the day, you are not likely to bother transitioning. To reap the health benefits of a sit-stand workstation, you must be willing to transition between the two frequently, and the best way to ensure your willingness to do so is to make the transition as easy and fast as possible. I started alternating between sitting and standing during the work day and have found that it had a tremendously positive impact to my health in terms of pain reduction.

I have been using three simple tools to transition quickly between a seated position and standing position:

Motorized desk – I have only worked with desks that have motorized controls which allow me to raise or lower the desk with a push of a button. If others have worked with manually adjustable desks, please share your thoughts on the speed, ease, and noise associated with their adjustment by leaving a comment. Motorized desks vary in terms of the noise of the motor, how high or low they can adjust to, and whether they allow you to save height settings or not, among other features. In terms of shortening transition times, the pre-set adjustment can be faster because you simply push the button to adjust and while the desk is moving to the set height, you can be moving your chair into place or out of the way. The self adjustment is nearly as fast, and I have found it easy to determine a correct height based on a 90 degree angle of my arms and comfort.

Rolling chair and space to move quickly out of and back into position – Rolling a chair around is the easiest and fastest part of the process unless you have nowhere to put it, or you put it in a location that regularly interferes with access to your files, trash can, etc. Having a designated, close, and out of the way location to place your chair while you stand at your desk is a time-saver every time you transition and removes the frustration of having a chair in your way while you are working in a standing position.

A light-weight floor pad – I have tried a few different ergonomic standing pads and had challenges with each until I tried one suggested to me by my physical therapist. The first was heavy, large, and had numerous bumps along the surface. The pad was too heavy and large to easily move around, and the bumpy surface was not at all compatible with an office chair for when I was not standing. The second was not bumpy but again was heavy, large, and did not work well with an office chair. I now use a lightweight and much thicker pad that is quick and easy to move out of the way and prop against the leg of my desk, or I can use it as a foot rest in front of my office chair. The pad I use is called a balance pad, and there are numerous manufacturers that produce them. I will caution that the pad that I use has a much smaller footprint than most of the ergonomic pads that are used in workplaces for positions that stand most of the day. I remain stationary while I type and work on the computer so I do not need a lot of room to move on the pad. If balance is a concern, however, a larger footprint and a thinner pad that is not designed to help improve balance would be more ideal.

One of the challenges with a sit-stand workstation is that it can be distracting, time consuming, or difficult to transition between sitting and standing. The longer it takes to transition, the more your focus is removed from the work at hand, and it may be more challenging to reengage in your task. I have found that incorporating a motorized desk, having a designated location for a rolling chair, and using a lightweight easily moved and stored floor pad has resulted in rapid transitions that enable me to maintain focus and productivity and I change positions throughout the day. I have also found that transitions based on how my body feels has been a very effective means of selecting timing. This is because as soon as I feel tired or notice discomfort, my concentration is already impacted. The sooner I can transition to a more comfortable position, the faster I can refocus and regain productivity, while addressing the issue that broke concentration in the first place.

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay 

Love my job. Love my life. Learning to balance the two, regain/maintain health after hours in front of a computer and share what I learn to help others do the same.

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