13 ways to build a back-pain-proof office

Back pain is a big problem for British workers - and office culture only makes it worse. 

Typical office desk set-up, showing monitors, keyboard and mouse

An unhealthy office is one in which very little consideration has been given to realistic human behaviours. It is a place where people:

  • Are rooted to the same spot all day.
  • Have no access to exercise facilities.
  • Have to sit down to carry out their tasks.
  • Make small, repetitive movements all day.
  • Use handheld technology.
  • Feel pressured to come in early and stay late.
  • Eat at their work stations.
  • Adopt poor postures.
  • Experience mental stress.
  • Are too tired to exercise at the end of the day.
  • Gain weight over time.

Sound familiar? These conditions are, unfortunately, typical of many offices up and down the country.

All too often employers are too concerned with day-to-day business operations to invest in health solutions for their employees. If businesses are short-staffed and just getting by, it's unlikely they'll be looking at investing in state-of-the-art ergonomic equipment, or healthy food schemes and other perks for their employees.

But research shows us that health and wellbeing programmes are not just employee perks with soft benefits. Executed well, wellbeing programmes can significantly increase employee engagement and productivity - reducing costs related to absenteeism, workplace incidents and health and safety breeches. Ultimately, it's good news whatever stage your business is at.

We want to prove that it doesn't take much to transform an office into a healthier, more productive environment. Considering that back pain is one of the leading causes of workplace absence, costing the economy £5 billion a year (£554 per employee), we know it's worth the initial investment.

Here are 13 changes you can make to start creating a back-pain-free office right now:

1. Water is life - get your office drinking more

We're all by law obliged to provide our employees with safe drinking water. But are we all drinking enough of it? Some experts believe that dehydration can actually cause and exacerbate back pain. One study by Dr. Toby Mundel and a team of scientists at New Zealand's Massey University found that the more dehydrated participants were, the higher they rated their pain.

This preliminary study will precede further research into hydration and chronic conditions such as arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). While we can't claim that drinking water will stave off back pain, we do know that staying hydrated offers a wealth of benefits - especially to people in offices required to function highly for long periods of time.

Not drinking enough water can lead to:

  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • dry mouth, lips and eyes.

Consider putting up posters - either physically, or digitally on your Intranet, to promote the benefits of drinking more water.

2. Counting steps - make your trip to the water cooler count

Most office work is naturally sedentary. Unfortunately studies show that spending more than six hours a day sitting down can increase your risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, some cancers and a variety of MSDs - including back pain.

Luckily small, frequent movements can reverse this effect. Encourage employees to get to their feet more often by giving out pedometers (step counters) and introducing fun competitions to see who can rack up the most steps.

3. Reach for the sky - stretch your employees to their limits

There are several studies that demonstrate the physical benefits of stretching in the workplace. You could hire a gym/yoga/pilates instructor to come in and teach staff a range of stretches they can build into their daily routines to increase flexibility, loosen up tight muscles and decrease the risk of musculoskeletal injury.

You can download our free Workstation Exercises help sheet here >

4. Transform that dusty meeting room into an exercise area

If you have an unused space in your office, consider transforming it into a basic gym. That doesn't mean you have to invest in state-of-the-art equipment. Some of the most effective exercises are floor-based, for example planks, press ups and sit-ups. Simple, low-cost equipment includes:

  • yoga mats
  • gym balls
  • skipping ropes.

Email round weekly exercise ideas for all abilities.

5. Ergonomic seating - saves you money in the long-run

Good ergonomic task seating is a must for reducing workplace back pain. These are chairs that have been purposefully designed to support the spine correctly - with moving parts to adjust to different people's bodies.

Ergonomic chairs don't have to be expensive. In fact, we think they can save you money in the long term. Please visit our Seating Projects page, which is full of valuable information about choosing the right chairs for your organisation.

6. Teck neck-busters - straighten up your habits

If your employees are using smartphones, tablets and laptops to carry out their roles at work then they're at higher risk of developing what's been dubbed 'tech neck'. The head-hanging position many of us adopt to use these devices quickly causes aches, pains and long-term problems.

Avoid tech neck by pairing handheld tech with ergonomic devices like laptop stands, reading tables and tablet holders.

7. Liberate your desk jockeys

We don't necessarily have to sit down to use our computers. We can work just as effectively standing up. In 1994 we developed a desk that could be adjusted from a sitting to a standing height so users could move between the two. This gives users the freedom to sit and stand throughout the day, raising activity levels and reducing the risk of back pain developing. Browse our full selection of sit-stand desks here.

8. Step up your interior design

The lay-out of your office directly influences people's behaviours and daily habits. Design with activity in mind. How can you get people to move more? Can you put the printers and photo copiers upstairs? Put the water cooler further away?

Initially it feels like this distance is counter-productive, taking up time that could be spent working. But these small steps add up - and if they add up to healthy, pain-free employees, then isn't it worth the time?

9. Wellness programmes - a concerted effort to make office life better

A wellness programme addresses all elements of office life. Usually it involves a consultant coming in to assess a workplace and report on what could be improved. At the core of every wellness programme is the question: how can we adapt the office environment to ensure employees are as happy, healthy and productive as they can be?

Contact our consultants today to register your interest in a wellness programme. 

10. DSE assessments - a few simple changes can transform your body

DSE regulations must be followed by all organisations where people frequently use display screen equipment (computers/laptops/tablets etc.).

However, DSE is more than just a formality. A quick assessment by an expert can identify problems that could otherwise escalate into much bigger and more damaging problems. DSE is all about prevention and for minimal spend, you could save your organisation a lot of money, time and resources in the future.

Book a DSE assessment >

11. Nutrition - fuelling performance

Being overweight can cause and worsen back pain. The more weight you carry, the more pressure there's going to be on your spine. Unfortunately, office life is not conducive to weight loss. When we're sitting down all day and fuelling up with sugary or fatty snacks, chances are our bodies will begin to cling onto that fat.

While employers can't dictate what staff eat, they can encourage healthy eating. Consider introducing a free fruit drop to all departments so when the urge comes to snack, people have the option to reach for an orange over a chocolate bar.

12. Microbreaks are good

Open plan offices can foster a feeling of being watched. Employees might feel like they're being judged if they get up to walk around regularly but this culture can be dangerous and unproductive. Microbreaks keep our bodies moving. Even just standing up to have a stretch can raise your pulse and improve your blood-flow.

Try to encourage staff to get up and talk to their colleagues instead of instant chatting or emailing. Make sure they know it's okay to pop out for a two-minute loop of the building, or a quick breath of fresh air at the window. These small conscious decisions keep us more alert, more active and more importantly they break us out of those bad postures that contribute to back pain.

13. Agile working policy

Agile working is an increasingly popular concept for office life. It revolves around the idea that many office jobs can be carried out anywhere - so why shackle people to their desks? Allowing remote working and flexible hours not only improves the work-life balance of employees (and therefore mood and happiness) it also encourages more physical activity.

It is the idea of the static desk that keeps us so sedentary. What if we were able to move from workspace to workspace throughout the day? What if we were able to work in a cafe for a morning, or go home and use our home offices seamlessly using remote technology?

Of course, with staff travelling for work its important that they stay comfortable, fit and healthy on the road. Provide lumbar rolls and recommend regular stop-offs.

Agile working is more than just being able to work how we want, when we want and where we want - it's about keeping the mind and body stimulated; constantly changing the dynamic of the workplace to foster innovation and avoid stagnancy.

Make sure staff are able to keep themselves safe and comfortable in a range of environments with WorkRite Agile, our agile working e-learning course.