Stress Management for Commuting and Conferences: how to make the necessary evils less painful—for your body

Sitting at a desk for long hours in a workplace with poor stress management is probably the number one source of aches and pains for most workers. This professor goes so far as to say it’s the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of kidney disease!

In our last post we covered some tips for setting up your desk at home to create little to no stress.

In this post, we’ll cover stress management tips for what to do when your job requires time outside of the office. For your commutes, off-site meetings, conferences, etc. All that time you spent optimizing your main work area will go out the window the minute you step away from it.

Here are some stress management tips for commuting without injury

First, let’s talk about how you are carrying your stuff around. I’ll admit that the aesthetic options for over the shoulder messenger bags, purses, and briefcases generally look better. However, they are poorly designed from an ergonomics standpoint. Don’t buy into it? Check out this Time article on purses and bags

You’re likely to spend hundreds to thousands of hours hauling your things around. Investing in a good looking rolling suitcase or backpack will save you money in physical or massage therapy later on.

My list of must haves

  • A rolling briefcase/suitcase with a pull out handle (best) or a backpack (2nd best). Hauling your life around in an over the shoulder bag, large purse, or briefcase with just a handle is asking for a shoulder or low back injury.
  • Get both! If you’re carrying enough stuff around to require 2 (or more) bags, get a rolling suitcase and a backpack. That combo will give you the same “carrying real estate” in the most body friendly package.
  • An iPad with a folding bluetooth keyboard and a light folding stand can handle most computing needs outside of the office these days. Unless you are doing heavy duty photography, graphic design, video editing, or crunching vast amounts of data, invest in an iPad. Your shoulders will thank you for losing the extra weight of the laptop.
  • The right footwear. If I had my way in the world, heels would be completely abolished as footwear. They alter your center of gravity, and do all sorts of nasty things to your spine. The long-term impact of wearing heels is a leading factor for back pain, knee pain, and neck pain. At minimum, switch to a comfortable, cushioned, pair of flat shoes whenever you are going anywhere outside of work. That includes the to and from commute as well. This is one of the few instances where carrying the extra weight around is well worth it.

Additional stress management tips

  • Remember to switch sides when carrying your bag. Give the side you “lead with” a rest.
  • Store as many paper files in digital format that you can get away with. Pound for pound digital files weigh nothing. 
  • If you are hauling around gym clothes everyday, do they fit in a rolling suitcase/backpack combo along with all of your work stuff? If not, it might be time to rethink things. The extra bag is undoing many of the health benefits you are getting out of the gym in the first place. Look into a gym close to home instead of near work. Try switching workouts to first thing in the morning (pre-shower). This is often one of those “best is the enemy of good” situations. The gym near work might be nicer, but you would really be better off with a decent one close to home.

Conferences & Meetings are a Pain in the Butt

For off-site meetings and conferences, the main problem is lack of control over your seating and the expectations for how long you’ll have to sit in session.

Meetings in conference rooms usually have better chairs, so that’s a plus. However, if you need to get up and stretch or even stretch at your seat, you’re going to feel a bit weird with people around.

Your best bet is to try the following well ahead of the meeting:

  • Do 5 minutes of stretching before you get to the conference room. You likely won’t have time during the meeting itself. If you don’t have a good place to do that, honestly, use the bathroom.
  • Request that the meeting take 5 minute breaks every hour (at the minimum) to be able to stand up, stretch, walk around a bit, etc. Best is to bake this into the agenda long before the meeting time. If you’re attending someone else’s meeting, you can always request this at the beginning before it starts. If you feel uncomfortable asking, you can always “white lie” and say that you have a medically diagnosed low back injury and your doctor has advised this. The others in the meeting will probably thank you for the reminder for self-care.
  • Can’t do the above either because you won’t ask, or because the request was denied? Take 5 minutes anyway and go to the bathroom every hour.

At the meeting or conference:

  • When you arrive, play with the settings on your chair to adjust the height to a comfortable level. During the meeting, try adjusting the height slightly up or down whenever you get a bit sore. This will make you use slightly different muscles and give the ones you just used a break.
  • If you find that you tend to cross your legs only in one direction, try switching. Between not crossing, and crossing to the other side every 15 minutes or so you may find some comfort. This will help relieve your muscles from getting stuck into a habitual asymmetrical pattern (which leads to a repetitive stress disorder).
  • For the really bold, take your shoes off under the conference table and/or attend meetings with laceless shoes that are easy to slip on and off.

For conferences, try the following tips:

  • Pick a spot towards the back or the outside of the seating rows. You’ll have an easier time moving around and won’t worry as much about disturbing anyone.
  • If you are in a larger group, less eyes will be focused on you. Feel free to practice some in chair stretching during the lectures. We have a number of useful quick tutorials for workplace stretching on our YouTube channel.
  • Check in with yourself during a lecture. Are you really interested in the topic and material or just going through the motions because someone else thought this would be “good for you?” If you feel like you’re getting little out of it, dropping out and getting a quick snack would be a great self-care practice. Check the list of other available opportunities for something more interesting while you’re out! Nothing is more stressful than boredom or feeling like you are wasting your time.

The more you can be a leader in the workplace and make small changes for your own health and stress management, the better you’ll feel. As people start to notice how much happier you seem, the more likely it will be that people will start following along and practicing their own stress management. Hopefully, over time, the whole culture around you starts to shift and you’ll be dealing with far less stress overall.

In our next post, we’ll cover travel tips for planes, trains, and automobiles!

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