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Protecting yourself from your cubicle

Office work is deceptively cushy looking, what with the sitting down, minimal lifting requirements, and parades of snacks and anniversary cakes. But over the past few years evidence has shown that office work comes with a host of health risks that are, unfortunately, neither obvious nor badass. What’s a squishy pencil pusher to do?

Health experts recommend standing or moving around two to four hours a day, including looking into the distance to prevent eyestrain, having a properly ergonomic setup, and staying home when you’re sick. Most people can’t meet this ideal completely, but you can aim to get as close as possible.

A lot of preventative measures can be managed through behavior changes alone, but it can mean that you go against a company culture of overwork. If you think preventing your body from becoming a ramshackle husk will make you look bad, it may be helpful to check how the law applies to your situation.

What you’re legally entitled to varies by state and industry. In general, if you work a full-time hourly position, you are likely entitled to a 30 min. unpaid mealtime, and rest breaks (if allowed) of 5-20 min. that should be paid. There are states that have no laws regarding meals or breaks, and in that case, you should see what policy, if any, your employer has and enforces; this is also helpful if you’re salaried or otherwise exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act. (If your company has illegal practices, by all means contact OSHA. Legal treatment should literally be the bare minimum.)

When you take your breaks, walk around instead of looking through your social media accounts. When you take your lunch, get away from your desk and fit in a bit of movement if there’s time. It helps to recruit a pleasant and like-minded co-worker to do these things with you. Set an alarm on your phone or calendar reminder to ensure that you remember to take your breaks.

You may not get a chance to get away from your cubicle every hour, but at the very least you can stand up, stretch, and stare off into the middle distance while you do it. No, you won’t look cool, but it’s even less cool to need surgery for repetitive motion injuries. These stretches will help with common muscle tightness that comes from sitting all day.

When it comes to your desk setup, see what your options are. A large corporate office may have an ergonomics department, and it’s in your best interest to contact them if you feel crappy due to your janky chair or strangely square mouse. Some companies require a doctor’s note when it comes to doling out more expensive equipment like a motorized sit-stand desk. If you’re in pain, go to the doctor and get that note if you’re able. Don’t wait for things to get worse before asking for what you need.

We’ve come a long way ergonomically. Image: Wikipedia

If you work for a small business there may be no ergonomics department or extra equipment, but you shouldn’t give up. See how your co-workers feel about improving their cubicle setups and figure out your best-case scenario, one where you get all the expensive stuff to keep you from becoming a gnarled shell of your former self. If it’s reasonable to pitch this proposal, do it. If not, scale things back until you think you can make a decent case. Your proposal should include total cost, how long this equipment should last, and how increased employee health benefits the company (eg. higher productivity, less time off, less turn over, etc. Whatever speaks most to the decision makers.) Not everyone’s in a position to try this, but it is worth a shot.

When it comes to sick time, ideally, everyone could stay home until they’re well enough to work. In my experience this almost never happens.

To avoid getting sick in the first place, just follow the classic CDC advice of hand washing, not rubbing at your face with your grubby hands, and disinfect commonly used items like your phone and keyboard. If you are sick, but can’t take a day off, see if you can work from home or rearrange your schedule to minimize contact with others. Sometimes the best you can do is cover your sneezes and coughs, disinfect your work area, and perpetually wash your hands.

Cubicle drudges spend a lot of time at work, but your time away from your three bland cubicle walls will also affect you. If you sit and stare at a screen in your off time, you may want to rethink how you relax. Look, I’m not the queen of high bars, but if you replicate your crappy work environment at home, you may need to make some changes there too.

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