Health

If Working From Home Is Destroying Your Back, You're Not Alone

This far into the pandemic, DIY desks made from credenzas and dining chairs are wreaking havoc on everyone's backs.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
October 27, 2020, 5:57pm
Man works on his laptop from his couch
Surface via Unsplash

It happened about a month ago, on a normal Tuesday morning of staring at my phone in bed before starting the day: I turned my head in exactly the wrong way, at perhaps exactly the wrong time, and something sort of…cracked/popped/crunched, and I immediately became unable to move my neck and shoulders. It was a Miranda-on-her-bathroom-floor moment, complete with trying to remain as immobile as possible while calling my mom on the phone, whose response was, “What do you mean you can’t move?”

Eventually my partner came home from his morning run, heard me shouting at him very dramatically from my position, and helped me get to the chair where I spent the rest of the day.

Some would say I could’ve seen this coming. I might even say, I could’ve seen this coming. For weeks, I’d been working at a “desk” that was actually a table, sitting on a “chair” that didn’t have a back (ceci n’est pas une chair). My posture was something they try to beat out of you in etiquette class. Like millions of others, I have been rightfully banished from my office—with its ergonomically correct chairs and desktop monitors—since early March as a necessary precaution against spreading COVID-19. Also like millions of others, I have since been locked in a staring contest with various pieces of office furniture available for purchase online, all of which are ugly and cost one billion dollars. My apartment’s vibe—suddenly, the vibe of my entire world—could not be sacrificed for a “gaming chair.” And so instead, I gave my neck.

No arrangement of my home supplies—a useless cane cesca chair and a spare end table—could possibly achieve what I now understand as the heavy burden of the common office chair. As it turns out, ergonomics are not corporate wellness gobbledygook, but a delicate balance of physics that had been saving my neck all these years without me knowing it. Seven months (and counting) into an indefinite period of working from home, the consequences of slouching and hunching are beginning to show. I’m  in an ergonomic hell of our own making, completely unequipped to interior-design my way out of this problem.

In cramped apartments and houses unfit for proper offices all across the country, homebound employees are rigging all sorts of bad setups from which to work for 10 hours per day. “I had been sharing the kitchen table in our tiny apartment with my wife throughout the spring and summer; it was not a good setup,” Joel, 36, who asked to withhold his last name to avoid identifying his company, told VICE. “My neck and back hurt from looking downwards at a tiny laptop screen all day. I eventually started propping that up on jigsaw puzzle boxes and books. That helped but wasn’t a good solution.”

Joel, like me, put off investing in a proper desk chair when he was first sent home in March. It was unfathomable then that we’d all still be home now, much less next summer, a scenario that becomes increasingly likely each day that passes where our political leadership fails to do anything meaningful to help us. Forking over half a stimulus check for an ugly chair, in this literal economy? The president back then was still assuring everyone things would be normal any moment. Yet here we sit and hunch—except for Joel, who’d said he’d had enough: “I finally bit the bullet and bought a height adjustable desk, chair, and computer monitor. Loving it so far!”

Kevin, 43, who asked to omit his last name to avoid identifying his company, also tried to improve his desk setup recently, but to less meaningful effect. “I bought a cheap chair from Amazon but it’s not very comfortable,” he said. He ended up ditching the bad chair for the couch, which in turn makes him “feel sloppy” and hurts his back.

Of course, having issues with a desk setup assumes there is room to set up a desk for all of the people in any household who need to work from home. Bridget, 27, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her clients, has had to consider both workspace quality and privacy in a small, shared apartment.

“I’m a mental health therapist for children so I have to do my telehealth sessions confidentially in my one bedroom apartment that I share with my boyfriend,” she said. “That’s led to me sitting in a three-by-three foot corner of my bedroom, using a kitchen stool as a desk, and a desk chair from a flea market for a majority of my day. Also use a box fan as my makeshift white noise machine outside the door. I’ve definitely experienced more neck pain, headaches, and lower back pain than ever before.”

Several people without space for any desk at all told VICE that they’ve been working from their beds for the past almost eight months, because they simply have no space in their homes for desks.

“My partner and I each sit on either side of the bed; it’s a double bed, so there’s not too much space,” Andy, 26, who asked to omit his last name to avoid identifying his employer, said. “I tried a lap desk for a bit but it took up too much room and was too high for me. If I need to take a Zoom call, I have to stack my laptop on a bunch of books on the coffee table, or sit on the floor. My company gave me a second monitor to use but I have nowhere to put it.”

Working from home is not just necessary to staying safe during the pandemic, but most workers—despite their Frankensteined, not-quite-desk spaces—have found they actually prefer it. In a survey conducted by the New York Times and market research group Morning Consult in August, nearly 90 percent of workers said they were satisfied working remotely, with nearly half saying they were “very satisfied.” Remote workers previously told VICE they liked the ability to do small house chores or play with their dogs here and there. One anonymous worker in Ventura, California credited working from home with lessening their anxiety disorder immensely. Many said they counted the hours not spent commuting as hours added to the day.

The pandemic has shifted office culture to the extent that many who once commuted every day will likely only do so part time, if at all, once things return to normal. Office space is expensive, and most jobs can be performed seamlessly from anywhere, at least from a workflow perspective. But it leaves them on their own, in terms of fancy ergonomic office furniture normally bought in bulk for an office.

Not much can be done about living spaces that physically can’t accommodate desks, but some companies have found a partial solution for employees’ ailing backs in offering stipends for office supplies, or sending equipment to their workers’ homes. The only issue with the latter is what Andy ran into, which is, not all workers—especially those in high-rent big cities—have space for the equipment once it arrives.

“My neck and back are absolutely fucked from using my couch and coffee table as a setup for the past seven months.”

Christian, 23, who asked to omit his last name out of concern for his employer, correctly identified the space and setup conundrums as a labor issue. He moved to a new city to start a job just before the pandemic. “Some people, especially those with more seniority, AKA more money, have space in their homes to have a home office,” he said. “Living in a small, one-bedroom apartment, there isn’t room for me to have the setup I need outside of my living room.”

Like so many others, Christian put off getting a desk and chair for his living room at first because of how temporary the United States government believed this global viral pandemic would be. In response, companies, beholden to government restrictions, have been reluctant to make long-term plans about the future of work.

“Here we are in October, and I’m still hesitant to invest for the same reason,” Christian said. “Some people were able to take their chairs home with them; living in a big city, I couldn’t exactly take my desk chair on the bus with me. My neck and back are absolutely fucked from using my couch and coffee table as a setup for the past seven months.”

I’d vaguely known I needed to fix my desk situation, was browsing those stooping accounts and Craigslist regularly, but the pulled neck was the final straw. Fate intervened. A friend who was moving offered an office chair, desk (read: not a table) and spare monitor, all hand-me-downs and now the most precious things I own. Using this handy graphic from Mayo Clinic, I set my station up as correctly, ergonomically, as I could. If I stretch my arm out, I brush the beautiful and perfect monitor. My feet are flat on the floor. My back is supported. I can finally turn my neck all the way to both sides. I was lucky in that I had the space for all this ugly junk. If it’s possible that we’re all doing this for another six months, year, 12 years, whatever, the atmospheric vibe had to give a little, in favor of comfort and a functional spine.

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