Natural born (office) killers

Your time spent in the office could be killing you - literally! And the worst part is, you may not even be aware of it.

According to a US survey, the average worker in a developed economy clocks in about eight to 12 hours a day. With nearly half a day spent there, you should expect it to be an environment that's as comfortable as your home's.

Yet, many of our offices aren't up to mark health-wise.

Here are the hidden health hazards that you should be aware of - and how to banish them.

1. Mousetrap

It may not seem like a dangerous occupation, but a desk job could have you clicking your way to repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

"Stretching to operate a mouse is an increasingly common cause of RSI," says Tim Hutchful, a UK-based chiropractor.

Protect yourself

"Ensure the arms of your chair are level with your desk to support your mouse arm, and avoid slouching while using the mouse," says Joanna Lim, an occupational therapist with the Department of Rehabilitative Services at Changi General Hospital.

"Also, don't rest your wrists on the sharp edges of the table, as this can cause nerve compression in the wrists (carpal tunnel syndrome)," she adds.

If your chair's armless, position your mouse centrally to limit strain on your tendons.

Alternatively, visit to set up automatic computer reminders that will prompt you to take a much needed break every two hours.

2. Killer chair

Over 60 per cent of patients suffering from musculoskeletal disorders (back, shoulder and neck pain) are deskbound workers, says Lim.

And the main culprit: your office chair. A poorly designed one may lead to poor sitting postures that increase the amount of load and tension on your spine and muscles.

In the long run, this can lead to a slipped disc and spinal nerve compression.

Protect yourself

Be picky with your chair. Here's how to choose one:

It should have enough room to allow your buttocks to be positioned comfortably, with some space on either side of your hips.

It should also have a flexible back rest that provides good support for the lower-back area, where a majority of back pain is targeted.

If you've been sitting on a stool, we suggest you get off your arse and make a change right away!

Other than finding the perfect chair, use the 20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes, stand for 20 seconds and stretch or shake things out.

"Just 20 seconds away from your computer reduces fatigue and increases blood circulation," says Alan Hedge, PhD, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University.

3. Desktop dining

The next time you plan to dine at your desk, remember this: UK microbiologists found that keyboards are hotbeds for bacteria to thrive.

In fact, numerous workstations they analysed harboured five times more germs than a toilet seat - and the main cause was people eating at their desks.

"Bits of food caught between the keys are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria," says Dr Mark Enright, microbiologist at Imperial College London.

Protect yourself

There's no other way to prevent this than to stop dining at your desk.

If you have to eat, do so at a common area. And remember to wash your hands to get rid of any germs that you may have picked up from your keyboard before and after you tuck in.

4. Phone cradling

Holding the phone between your head and shoulder raises your risk of spinal-nerve compression and even a "mini stroke", reports the journal Neurology.

A 43-year-old Frenchman experienced temporary blindness, ringing in his ear and difficulty speaking after an hour's cradling, says the report.

He had ruptured the carotid artery that supplies the brain and eyes with blood.

Protect yourself

Fortunately, technology has given us a feasible solution.

"Use a hands-free headset or alternate the ear you hold the phone to with every call," says Dr Mathieu Zuber, the neurologist who reported the case on the Frenchman.

5. Death stare 

Eye strain (tired eye muscles) isn't the only cause of poor vision. It could be dry eyes, say Norwegian researchers.

They found that people blink 10 fewer times per minute when they're staring at a computer screen than when they're having a conversation.

This causes your "tear film" - the outer layer of moisture on your eyeball - to evaporate more quickly.

"When your tear film isn't healthy, your visual acuity won't be as sharp and clear," says Dr Patricia Sabb, an associate professor of ophthalmology.

Protect yourself

Take three-minute breaks and close your eyes every hour. (If your boss thinks you're napping, tell him you're just restoring the tear film.)

6. Internal air-fairs

Besides sapping your concentration, bad air circulation in the office also causes a host of health problems. (Do you even know when was the last time they cleaned your office's air-con system?)

In fact, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the US found that workers in air-conditioned offices are two-and-a-half times more prone to respiratory problems than those in naturally ventilated environments.

So how do you tell if the air in your office is bad?

If you often develop symptoms that tend to worsen at the end of a work day or week, while you remain relatively symptom-free during the weekend, it's probably your office air that's wreaking havoc with your immune system.

Protect yourself

It's best to open the windows every once in a while to ventilate your work area. But if that's not an option, take regular breaks (not to smoke) outside. Moreover, the walk would help boost your concentration levels.

7. Overcharged

Computers, mobile phones, photocopies, wi-fi modems and an endless stretch of electrical cables that run under your feet all contribute to the fog of electromagnetism in the office.

Although electrosensitivity varies from person to person, recent studies by Dutch scientists found that electrical equipment in the office cause the ions in the air to be positively charged.

This in turn resulted in an increase in the number of office workers complaining of fatigue, headaches, and skin and eye irritation - only while they're at work.

Protect yourself

Besides moving back to the Stone Age, one alternative is to use an ioniser, which can help neutralise the positively charged air in the office.

You don't need to get an industrial-sized ioniser though; a personal one which can be placed on your desk (such as the Sharp Portable Plasmacluster Ion Generator, S$179, at Best Denki outlets) would do just fine.

8. Face facts

Too much "virtual" communication and not enough face-to-face interaction spells trouble.

Research for computing company Cisco found teams who only communicate by phone and email take up to four times longer to build trust than face-to-face teams.

"These 'virtual teams' struggle to bond because communication is depersonalised," says the study author, occupational psychologist Caroline Shearsmith.

What's more, a separate UK study found that not only did the productivity of workers who had trust issues at work drop by as much as 40 per cent, they also doubled their risk of heart disease due to the stress.

Protect yourself

Nothing's more effective than building trust among colleagues and lowering stress levels than bonding over steak and a (few) good bottle of red wine. -MH

Get a copy of November 2011 issue of Men’s Health for health, fitness and lifestyle tips that are 100% useful. Men’s Health is published by SPH Magazines is available at all newsstands now.

Dr Piyali Mukherjee is a Contributing Writer with Men’s Health magazine by SPH Magazines.

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