We spend at least a third of our lives working, so it’s not surprising our jobs affect our health. Work-related health problems are typically thought of as caused by accidents, toxic chemicals or jobs that threaten one’s safety, such as being a fisherman, which currently has the highest fatality rate among U.S. occupations. (There’s a reason why a reality show about fishermen is called “Deadliest Catch.”)
What many don’t think about is how non life-threatening environments, such as working in an office every day, could also be affecting your health for the worse. You may be taking care of yourself by exercising and eating healthy on a regular basis, but what about the eight hours you spend at work, hunched over your desk typing away as you stare at a computer screen?
The effects of sitting, standing and slouching
Todd Ward, physical therapist and manager for Howard Head Sports Medicine at Edwards, Avon and Beaver Creek, said health issues caused by our jobs aren’t necessarily increasing so much as changing due to our evolving work environments.
“There are less people working in hard labor-type jobs,” Ward said. “(We now see) more of the sedentary, postural issues that come with (the jobs we) currently experience.”
According to Ward, lower back pain and injury are the most common health issues he sees caused by working. Sitting for long periods of time is associated with the shortening and tightening of postural muscles, which could weaken those muscles over time. While many recent studies have demonstrated the risks of sitting all day, those who stand for prolonged periods at their jobs can also incur health issues. Alan Hedge, director of human factors and ergonomics research at Cornell University, said standing all day is more tiring, increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (inflammatory build up of the carotid artery) and the risk of varicose veins. Even using a standing desk could pose a health risk.
“For standing computer work, the computer fixes the person’s posture,” Hedge said in an April 2011 interview with Time magazine. “There is greater wrist extension and pretty soon people end up leaning which also compromises their wrist posture, thereby increasing the risks of a musculoskeletal disorder like carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Unless you practice what some people jokingly refer to as “the oldest profession” and lie on your back all day, there’s really no way to get through the daily grind without sitting or standing for extended periods of time. Ward said if you start to experience physical pain caused by movement (or lack thereof) at your job, then try implementing exercises to counteract this.
“Everything in your body is about balance,” Ward said. “If you’re spending a lot of time doing a repetitive motion in one direction, you need to spend some time allowing the muscles and joints to move in the other direction.”
Ward said there’s not one specific exercise that works for everyone, but things such as taking a short walk, stretching and working on strengthening your spine and posture can all help reduce joint and muscle aches.
Preventing the pain
Those who spend a lot of time typing at a computer for work may fear developing carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes pain, tingling and numbness due to pressure on the median nerve in your wrist. Ward said it’s important to keep your wrists in a neutral, relaxed position and investing in an ergonomically-designed keyboard can help you do this.
If you are starting to experience symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, consult a physician. If you type all day but are not feeling pain in your wrists, then you can still balance out your movements by periodically flexing your palms against the back of your hand or doing the same motion while standing upright against the back of a chair.
Another common work-related health issue is eye strain, which can cause headaches, increased sensitivity to light and difficulty focusing. Eye strain is becoming more prevalent due to an increase in the time we spend looking at digital screens and computer monitors.
Dennis Page, Ph.D., optometrist at Vail Vision, said there are a few ways one can reduce or eliminate eye strain. One way is to stop looking at your screen for a few minutes and focus on something in the distance.
“Don’t go read the paper,” Page said. “Look at something far away. This relaxes the muscles in your eyes that are causing the eye strain.”
Page also said there are a variety of new special-purpose lenses on the market designed for looking at digital screens, which help the eye muscles relax even when focusing up close.
Mind over work matters
While physical health issues caused by working are often noticeable and easily treated, mental health problems caused by or made worse due to our jobs can be harder to recognize. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine following 7,000 Australians found that a poor-quality job can be just as detrimental to one’s mental health as being unemployed. The unemployed subjects who found a job in which they either felt overwhelmed, uncertain about their employment, micromanaged or underpaid reported a significant mental health decline and an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Stacey Horn, licensed clinical social worker out of Edwards and Eagle, said locally the need for two or more jobs to get by often results in more feelings of stress, anxiety or depression. Horn sees many patients who turn to alcohol to cope and blame their drinking on a difficult job situation. Horn said it’s not so much what you do, but who you work with that can affect one’s mental health the most.
“I’ve (spoken) with people who love what they do but feel alienated or are being made to feel like they don’t fit in well,” Horn said. “There’s no feeling of support.”
When looking for a new job, many first seek the highest salary or best hours without considering the importance of healthy work relationships.
“Be aware (of the environment) because work is such a stressor in our lives,” Horn said. “It’s an important consideration most people aren’t thinking about.”
Some of us love our occupations, while others stare longingly out the window wishing we could be anywhere else at that moment. In the current economy, it’s not always feasible to quit our jobs and find one that makes us happier. But just as a smile can warm someone’s day, small changes to improve our work environment could go a long way. If you’re slouching right now reading this, maybe it’s time to sit (or stand up) and take notice of the ways your work habits are affecting your own health.