This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

 

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I know most people don’t normally associate the phrase “workplace injuries” with the act of writing.

One non-writer friend joked, “What do you consider an injury? Packing on the pounds because you sit around all day?”

Well, yes, actually, that is a worrisome health issue. Although it is probably more of a negative lifestyle issue (lack of exercise, over-snacking, etc.) than a workplace injury.

A non-scientific anecdotal survey among several of my freelancing colleagues recently revealed their following injuries which they definitely associate with their work.

It’s my hope that by reading this their injuries won’t one day become your own.

TINNITUS

What it is:

A persistent ringing in the ears. It can obscure words (which you can still hear but often can’t make out). It can lead to depression, isolation and lack of self confidence.

It’s often (but not always) a symptom of some form of damage to the inner ear. Loud continuous sound is the worst offender. Most radio professionals I know (of a certain age) all suffer from some form of hearing loss. Many report tinnitus too.

One colleague, looking back on his salad days in radio, explained, “You’d turn your cans [headphones] up real loud so you felt right inside the radio when you spoke”. You get similar hearing loss from loud live music – your ears may ring for hours. Well, after too much such punishment, your inner ears can suffer permanent damage.

What you can do about it:

See your doctor at once.

There’s no 100% cure that I know. Some doctors try prescribing tranquilizers, others suggest using “white noise” generators to hide the never ending buzzing, ringing and whining. It usually comes down to simply learning how to “manage” it.

The best thing you can do is protect your hearing in the first place. If you work in radio, turn your headphone volume down! If you attend noisy concerts, always carry ear plugs. Use them! There is no excuse not to have several sets – one stored in each jacket or bag. They are available for low cost at your local drugstore. More powerful ones (that exclude more noise) can be custom made professionally.

REPETITIVE STRAIN INJURY/CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME

What it is:

Continuous repetitive activity can damage the body’s network of muscles, nerves and tendons. The resulting pain can cause activity to become highly restricted.

Carpal tunnel syndrome seems to be a specific kind of repetitive strain injury, in which the main nerve controlling most of your hand is damaged by an inflammation (swelling) of the carpal tunnel in your wrist through which it travels. This is the injury most of us keyboard-hounds should fear the most. Some sufferers can barely use their hands again, in worst case scenarios.

What you can do about it:

See your doctor at once.

Once the damage is done, like tinnitus, it seems to probably comes down to managing the symptoms and arranging your work so as not to make things worse. The best advice would be to avoid it in the first place. One colleague I know had to take early retirement because she could no longer work a keyboard.

If you suspect you may be suffering from it (any kind of pain or tingling or burning in your fingers or hands) you should seek immediate advice from your doctor. Learn how to sit properly while working, and how to adjust your keyboard and mouse to minimize the impact. Frequent breaks and general exercise are also recommended. These changes could save your hands, arms and shoulders from further damage.

EYE STRAIN

What it is:

Staring at any screen for long can cause the eyes to water, turn red or even affect your vision.

What you can do about it:

See your doctor (if it is persistent).

Perhaps you will need special glasses for use when at the keyboard. One colleague told me looking at a screen caused him to feel headachy and nauseated until he had glasses made up with a special computer-screen prescription.

Other things you can do: Take more frequent breaks (good for the rest of your body too) to give your eyes time to rest. Don’t rub them, although we all do, as it tends to aggravate any irritation. Always use proper lighting.

SCIATICA

What it is:

A big nerve running from your lower back into both legs can get rubbed or damaged and cause severe pain in your back, posterior and legs.

What you can do about it:

See your doctor at once.

I would have never thought to include this except one colleague recently told me she had suffered from it. The medical advice she received affirmed it was work-related.

She had been sitting poorly for months while using her laptop for multiple hours each day. Her poor posture put undue strain on her back and legs so much so that it inflamed the sciatic nerve resulting in her great discomfort.

In her case, she immediately remedied the situation by improving her sitting posture, buying a back support device to affix to her chair, taking more frequent breaks and getting outside for more general exercise especially walking. Fortunately the damage to her nerve appears not to be irreversible.

“BURN-OUT”

What it is:

You know it when you feel it. Or maybe you don’t. Therein may lie its danger. The World Health Organization now characterizes it as “chronic workplace stress” manifesting in “exhaustion” and a sense of “cynicism” (among other things) resulting in “reduced professional efficacy.” It’s not a disease, but the WHO have declared it an “occupational phenomenon.” I’d call it a form of workplace injury.

What to do about it:

See your doctor (if you start feeling unlike your normal self – or like nothing at all).

In general terms, the primary remedy for “burn-out” appears to be three-fold:

More sleep. More exercise. More human contact (for even the most curmudgeonly).

We live in an age wherein we are not getting enough of any of them. Freelancers on deadlines can certainly step to the front of the line. Who gets enough sleep? Or exercise? Or time off to chat with friends and family? But it’s when our workload is heaviest that we often unknowingly hit our lowest ebb – and that’s when “burn-out” can lead to significant health issues.

And finally, a word about diet

Freelancers easily fall prey to terrible dietary habits. Maintaining a proper diet is essential for our overall good health. I’d like you to look at the multiple part series I posted years ago on diet advice for freelancers. It still all holds true today.

The takeaway

Freelancers can succumb to workplace injuries just as serious and debilitating as those in more physically-demanding jobs.

It’s important to recognize warning signs and seek professional medical help immediately to determine the extent of injuries and a recovery plan to return to full health.

Even better, by recognizing the possibility of workplace injuries, much can be done ahead of time to prevent them – or else to minimize their detrimental impact.

This is just a preliminary list. I’m no doctor but I’m sure sure further research will result in a much longer list.

If you choose to share any injuries you’ve suffered and what you’ve done about them in the comments section below you could be doing your fellow freelancers a real service.

Meanwhile, do yourself a favour, right now. Wherever you are – turn off this screen, get up, and take a minimum ten minute break.

You can thank me later.

 

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