There have been some excellent articles educating us about the vocal fatigue that many of us are experiencing due to this online environment that we all find ourselves in.
Here I will elaborate on how poor posture and your workstation set up may actually be affecting your ability to produce and sustain your voice. This impacts any of us who are now teaching online, coaching online or completing medical telehealth consults (thank you to those amazing doctors and allied health professionals out there).
For those of you who haven’t thought much about your larynx, commonly known as your voice box, let’s briefly orientate you – it is suspended at the front of your neck in a myofascial sling that is dynamic and moves with our head, neck and jaw. Our larynx vibrates when we speak, we breathe through it, and it moves up and down when we chew, swallow or yawn. Research has shown that altered muscle activation and tension around the larynx can create voice dysfunction and managing this musculoskeletal aspect is important for us to effectively produce our voice.
Let’s take a look at four postural and workstation factors and what these might do to your voice and what you can do about it.
When you poke your chin forward for sustained periods of time, you are shortening the muscles at the back of the neck and are most likely increasing the tension in your neck. At the front of the neck, this forward head posture alters the tension of the muscles surrounding the larynx. The combination of these two factors impacts the biomechanics of the larynx where it may not be in its most efficient position which means you will have to work harder to produce your voice.
Elongate your head and neck from the back of the head, imagining puppet strings from the back of your head to the ceiling. When doing this movement, your chin may drop down slightly. The key distinction here is that your chin doesn’t retract back (think double chin). Traditionally, when correcting neck posture you may tend to retract your chin back however this actually increases activity of the muscles around the neck (in particular, the sternocleidomastoid muscle) and anecdoctally our clients report that they have “less space” for their larynx to move as freely as possible. Therefore, “elongate” your neck to decrease tension around the larynx to free up your voice.
Next stop, rounded shoulders. Whilst sitting at a computer at your desk, there is a high chance your shoulders are rounded and creeping towards the computer. In turn, your chin will start to protrude forward, setting up our forward head posture. When sustained, this position creates a feeling of tension in not only in our upper back but also in our neck and larynx.
You may have traditionally been told to bring your “shoulder blades back and down” however, this can create rigidity in your chest and impact your ability to breathe freely.
Therefore, think wide collar bones. Using wide collar bones as a cue opens not only the chest but also your back, allowing your neck to be free with minimal tension so you can speak freely and look good on Zoom too.
How do you sit on your desk chair? Are you either perched on the edge of the chair holding your body rigid, or, are you slumped in your chair?
If you are one to perch up rigidly, you are probably using more muscle activity than you need and you may find you are becoming fatigued with aches and pains in the upper back region.
If you are a “slumper”, you are increasing load through your back and your breathing may be shallower. The slumped position is also a precursor to setting up a forward head position (which we know by now increases tension around your larynx).
Unfortunately, both these positions do not encourage efficient and natural breathing patterns and so your voice may not be as supported as you need and may feel more effortful.
To combat this, when setting up your desk, always set your chair up first, then don’t be afraid to use it! Your chair should be supporting your lower and upper back and your hips shouldn’t be flexed past 90 degrees. Imagine sitting on a saddle with a more open hip position (rather than flexed) as this promotes a more forward position in the pelvis which encourages the torso and neck to stack up without using excessive muscle activity. A great set up for breathing and supporting your voice.
Prior to starting any online meetings use pelvic tilts (or rocking) to increase your awareness of your body position and improve your breathing efficiency. With your feet flat on the ground, rock the pelvis forward and back four or five times, finishing in a position that may be slightly more forward than when you started.
Working at a desk is static work, so alternating a sitting and standing position is a way to combat poor posture creeping in. I would encourage you to try standing up for your voice calls which will encourage a more dynamic posture. From a voice perspective, this allows you to breathe more effectively, decrease neck and shoulder tension and connect with your voice more easily than a slouched position.
Stand with your knees soft (not hyper extended) and change up your leg position by placing one foot up on a small step (or a ream of paper also works). Doing this will change the activation of your deep core and pelvic floor and can help support your voice by decreasing the tension in your torso, neck & larynx.
In summary, a smart but simple desk set and breaking up sustained postures will free up any tension accumulating around your larynx. So whilst you work from home, be aware of your head and neck position, move to activate your voice and alter your camera angle and microphone to suit your position. If you are feeling muscle tension, please visit your trusted health practitioner to have it managed to unload your larynx and tune up your voice so that you can feel and sound the part for those important conference calls.