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Stressful times

The news media has been filled with images of stressed financial workers in recent weeks. Turmoil on worldwide stock exchanges conjures up images of frantic men and women standing up shouting across busy, obviously noisy rooms or hunched over monitors, peering so closely as to almost touch their noses off the screen.

What strikes me watching these TV images is the universally stressed posture of the marketeers: raised shoulders, hunched upper bodies, tight chests. It is sure that many of them have aching necks and shoulders or headaches by the end of each day.

Stress related postures are most obvious in the upper body. The classically observed stress posture is thought to occur because of particular muscle recruitment patterns. Once any one of the three components occurs (holding the head forward, elevating the shoulders towards the ears and hunching and rounding the shoulders) the others follow inadvertently. Research would also suggest that poor head-on-neck posture is often accompanied by clenching or grinding the jaws in sleep, another sign of physical stress in the upper body.

I suspect those stock marketers go home exhausted each evening, mentally and physically. Dealing with mental stress is complex and requires many different strategies. What works for one person may not work for another. However understanding how to reduce physical stress through better postural choices is applicable to any office worker who recognises their own tight, raised and hunched shoulders or poked chin.

Posture is now known to be ‘learnt’ and as such is endlessly alterable. The main benefit of ‘ideal’ posture is that like a well tuned, fuel efficient car, good posture is energy efficient, takes less muscle effort to run and is much less tiring over time. The strange thing about posture is that whatever a person gets used to, generally feels right to them at the moment. But over prolonged periods extreme postures take their toll, leading to sore and stiff areas of discomfort in the body.

As a Chartered Physiotherapist I assess posture all day long, with every single person I treat. Manually altering posture from less than ideal towards what is considered ideal often brings on responses such as ‘that feels most odd’ or ‘I don’t think I could ever sit like that’. Often specific exercises are required to allow less used muscles take over their correct postural role. With effort and time it is fascinating to see posture changing for the better.

So, to effect change, the first rule of office ergonomics I suggest is to ‘take up the base of support’. Simply put, to sit fully back into your chair. Sounds too good to be true? Well, if you are one of the many that perch on the front edge of the chair, especially when busy or under stress, this is equivalent to spending your working day sitting unsupported on a stool. You would never think of spending 8-10 hours working on a stool, would you? But if you do not use your chair back this is precisely how you spend your day. On a stool, spinal muscles have to work continuously to counteract gravity and the weight of the head from pushing you down into a heap. This causes significant muscle activity leading to general fatigue and specific discomfort. Just sitting back into the chair would virtually negate this.

Another rule is to pull the monitor more closely than you probably do now. When doing onsite office ergonomic assessments, it is my experience that on average 60% of monitors are too far away. As eyes tire with constant screen reading, the lens in the eye focuses less well. The unconscious physical response to this is to gradually pull the head forward to improve ability to read what is on the screen. However, if you sit fully back into the chair, pull the chair close in to the desk and then position the monitor slightly less than an arm’s length away this places the screen at the perfect length for eye focus. Sitting in so close helps to maintain contact with the back of the chair, as leaning forward will become uncomfortable because of feeling too near to the screen.

Thus sitting back into the chair and placing the monitor at the correct eye focus distance reduces chin poke and rounding of the shoulders.

The third and most obvious stress response is to maintain the shoulders in elevation. There are several strategies to reduce this. One is to make use of elbow rests. In the past when typewriters were commonplace (sounds like the Dark Ages, doesn’t it), Operator chairs were used, chairs without arms to allow the typists freedom to access the large manual keyboard.

Much has changed in modern offices. Today’s modern keyboards do not require such space and in fact skilled keyboarders achieve high typing speeds because of ease of use of PCs and laptops. Every single keystroke uses many muscles, both in the hands but also in the shoulder region, as the shoulders control arm position. Over the course of a day this adds up to significant shoulder and hand muscle activity. Resting the elbows on elbow rests while typing significantly reduces the activity of shoulder muscles, reducing muscle fatigue in this area.

If you work in a stressful environment, try these strategies.
Mairead O’Riordan, MSc, MISCP is a senior Chartered Physiotherapist & CEO of TherapyXperts, an allied health network dedicated to clinical excellence.
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