The Physical Toll of Working from Home

I thought I was handling pandemic and election stress very well. Then, last weekend, I went to the dentist. I figured my mild tooth pain was due to a small cavity they had been watching pre-pandemic. Instead, they found every single tooth ligament in my lower jaw is swollen. I have evidently been clenching my jaw so tightly, likely at night, that all my bottom teeth are slightly loose. “We are seeing a lot of this,” said my dentist. In addition to jaw pain and swollen ligaments, many dentists are reporting an epidemic of cracked teeth. Some are reporting more fractures in the past six months than the prior six years. I had no idea I was doing this. Most people don’t. The cause? Working from home.

One solution to prevent cracks and loose ligaments is a custom night guard. This is a $500 expense often not covered by insurance. If every parent in America is experiencing anything remotely similar right now, we need to add $35B to the stimulus package, just to save our teeth.

In researching what else one can do to prevent this issue, it turns out that stress is not the only culprit. Poor posture during the day can also contribute to the problem. Many of us have moved from workspaces with ergonomically optimal setups to makeshift home offices. Our computers are too low or on our laps. We may not be sitting properly or have a good chair. Our neck and shoulders have nerves that lead to the jaw. Sitting too curved during the day can lead to grinding at night.

Likewise, we aren’t moving enough during the day. We used to walk to conference rooms, to lunch, to and from the parking lot or train station. A lack of movement during the day isn’t only bad for heart health, it is tough on our bones and muscles. We need to decompress the pressure on our spine, neck, and shoulders to help our jaw. I put my Fitbit back on after a one year hiatus to test WeSpire’s new wearables integration. It is shocking how much harder it is to get 10,000 steps when working from home.

So, saving our teeth requires a three-pronged approach:

  1. Set up a proper workstation. Place your computer at eye level (using a computer stand or stack books as necessary) and sit in an ergonomically appropriate chair at a desk or table. Try to work with your shoulders over your hips. Avoid working from the couch, kitchen counter, or bed as much as possible. If you don’t have a good set up, check to see if your company has set up a home office fund. For those companies that haven’t, a good chair is way cheaper than covering the cost of a cracked tooth. Consider starting one.

  2. Move during the day as much as you can. Pre-pandemic, I could walk two miles and then go about my day and hit 10K steps. Now I need to walk four miles given how little walking happens at home. Get those extra miles in by scheduling a few walk breaks over the course of the day. Dentists also recommend “wiggling like a fish” at the end of your day. Lay down on the floor, with your arms extended straight above your head. Gently wiggle your arms, shoulders, hips, and feet from side to side. The goal is to decompress and elongate the spine, as well as release and relieve some of that tension and pressure.

  3. Calm your “fight or flight” nervous system before bedtime. The easiest way to do this is through five minutes of deep breathing. This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and lowers your heart rate, blood pressure, and prepares you for more restorative sleep.

Most leaders are increasingly aware of the mental health impact that the past 10 months has had on their people. Yet, the enormity of the physical toll of suboptimal work from home conditions is only beginning to be understood by risk managers. The good news is that many issues are preventable and solvable with a few small changes to set-ups and behaviors. Your teeth (and your bank account) will thank you.

Quote of the Week: Love conquers all things, except poverty and toothache.

Mae West

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