Can mobile working make you unwell?
When the term “mobile working” is mentioned, many people might first think of a home office. However, the true meaning of mobile working is much broader than this; it is the term used to describe work that happens outside of the classic office environment.
The point here is that not all work needs to be completed inside an employer’s premises under specific instructions. Put simply, the elimination of these classic location-based activities enables employees to carry out their office work at other locations.
This may be only temporary, for specific days or periods of time. The off-site locations where work can be carried out can become more and more diverse due to ongoing digitalisation. 15 years ago, if you had asked office workers to define were asked what they needed to define an office workplace, they would probably have said the following:
- Swivel chair
- Computer with keyboard and mouse
- Desk lamp
Thanks to the advance of technology, this has been greatly reduced to tablets and smartphones, making it possible to work with anyone, anywhere at any time.
But what does this mean for peoples’ health? I have already written about the psychological effects of working from home (view here). In this blog I’m going to focus on the possible physical damage caused by working in the most diverse places, which we call “3rd places”.
Some of you may ask yourself, ‘if I’m sitting on my comfortable couch working on emails, how can that make me unwell?’
However, the ergonomic requirements for screen work are the same everywhere, whether you are in your employer’s office, a co-working space, a lounge, your home office or anywhere else. This is simply because your body does not change due to your location. Additional health hazards potentially result from the work equipment that we have recently started using for our office work in a wide variety of locations.
Take a holistic view of your workplace
Humans need to move around as much as possible to stay healthy, this does not change because you are in the office. We should therefore sit correctly, making sure that there is enough legroom to stretch our legs. Alternating between sitting and standing starts the blood circulation in the muscles and therefore your metabolism, especially when you are moving from sitting to standing and vice versa.
In the office you move automatically but this does not always happen in unfamiliar places, sometimes because there is not enough space. Also, the use of makeshift home office furniture such as gym balls, ironing boards, stools, etc. can lead to poor posture and increase the risk of accidents. You also need to pay attention to hazards such as power supplies and cables.
Design your mobile workplace ergonomically, it should be as similar as possible to your office workspace.
Mobile devices are not suitable for long periods of work
Checking e-mails with a smartphone is not a problem, but a smartphone is certainly not suitable for long-term use as a work tool. The viewing distance of small devices causes cramped postures and excessive lowering of the head.
Eye strain is increased by hours of staring at small screens. We know from evaluations of more than 40 international studies on VDU work that myopia is increasing because the growth of the eye is affected by this type of work.
In addition, users often notice reflections and glare on small screens, this is due to them not usually being anti-reflective screens, where photos and videos can be displayed clearly.
Tips to avoid eye strain
If necessary, wear a suitable visual aid
Take a break about every 20 minutes to look into the distance
Adjust your screen so that it is an arm’s length distance from your eyes
Do not sit in front of a window, but parallel to it
Support your hands and wrists
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), is a condition that causes numbness, tingling and weakness in your hands. It happens when there is pressure on your median nerve. It has long been known that this disorder can be promoted when using your keyboard without supporting your wrists.
For some years now, it has been known that with excessive use of your thumbs when texting causes inflammation of the thumb tendon in the saddle joint, this is colloquially known as “SMS thumb”.
It has been occurring much more frequently as a new modern affliction and the diagnosis of saddle joint arthrosis is more common in younger people. Even the youngest of children now use smartphones and tablets and this will continue into their working life, where the health problems will appear as long term.
Smartphone and tablets lead to incorrect posture
The wrist and forearm muscles are even further strained when holding a tablet tray. In Germany, orthopaedic specialists are already talking about the “mobile phone neck” and the “iPad shoulder”.
The New York spine surgeon Kenneth Hansraj has published a study according to which the human spine has to bear an additional load of about 27 kilos during normal use of a smartphone.
With a normal straight posture of the head, our cervical spine is loaded with about 5 kilograms. By moving the head forward, this value is increased by the resulting leverage, so that a load of 12 kilograms can be achieved at a 15 degree inclination, and even 22 kilograms at a 45 degree inclination.
Due to the bent posture, the muscles and the neck area are put under a lot of strain and can be damaged in the long term. The unnatural head and arm posture of smartphone and tablet users not only leads to tension in the head and neck area, but can also lead to postural problems and even a slipped disc.
Use a laptop with an external keyboard and stand
As I have explained about smartphones and tablets this also applies to laptops. The head position is too far down when using a laptop on its own. Too much inclination of the head leads to constant stretching of the shoulder and neck muscles, which over time causes pain. In the short term this is certainly not a problem, but if you want to work for more than an hour, you should use additional equipment.
When using your laptop a stand would be advisable, so that the monitor of the laptop is positioned higher, you would then need to use an external keyboard, because your wrists would be bent when the laptop keyboard is positioned diagonally upwards.
Tips to prevent incorrect posture
- Hold your smartphone and tablet higher
- Take regular breaks to stretch your hands and arms
- Raise your head and relax the neck and shoulder muscles
- Restrict the duration of use of your smartphone and tablet
- Slow down your typing and clicking movements
- Use an external keyboard and monitor
- If possible, use a vertical mouse
When did you last clean your smartphone?
Our constant little digital companions are real contamination points. We carry them with us everywhere and use them more often than we think. Psychologists from the British Nottingham Trent University examined how often we use our smartphone. We do this twice as often as we think we do, which is approximately 85 times a day!
Especially in times of flu and Covid-19 we should pay special attention to hygiene and clean our mobile devices more often. If I have just washed my hands and then reach for my smartphone, my hands are immediately infected again.
To clean your smartphone, we recommend a clean microfibre cloth and the use of special cleaning liquids such as those offered for PC monitors and keyboards. Some manufacturers, such as Apple, allow the use of disinfectant wipes. The important thing with sprays is to not spray them directly onto the equipment but onto the cloth. This prevents liquid from penetrating into the device and causing damage.
Mobile working has become a matter of course for most people in the office world. However, in addition to the technical and organisational tasks, we should not lose sight of ergonomics when designing our individual 3rd places.
Jörg Bakschas is an independent workspace specialist, change coach and design thinker. He is a member of several European committees working on standards for the office
If you would like any further advice or information about your home office or our ergonomic office furniture, please get in touch. And, if you found this blog helpful, please feel free to share it with your social networks.