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Give your eyes a break

Walk away from computer for brief periods to reduce strain
By Saul Chernos
February 03 2017 issue

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If you’re reading this article online, we recommend taking a quick break midway through. Or perhaps printing the article, or finding an old-fashioned paper copy of The Lawyers Weekly?

In this hyper-digital age, with smart phones at our fingertips and computer screens staring us down, our eyes and our minds are under considerable duress.

Nicolle Kopping-Pavars, a principal with NKP-Law, knows the feeling. The Markham, Ont., family lawyer has read more than her share of legal documents, and if she doesn’t pace herself and periodically shut her eyes and collect her thoughts she’ll end up in autopilot mode where her concentration ebbs and she’s less than ideally engaged.

“When it seems the words are swimming in front of me, or I’ve read the same sentence four times and it’s not making sense anymore, that’s my trigger to say I need a break,” Kopping-Pavars says.

Kopping-Pavars finds that focusing too long leaves her eyes sore, increases the risk of typing errors and impedes her attention to detail. And she’s in good company.

Justin Asgarpour, an optometrist with a practice on Robson Street in the heart of Vancouver’s business district, says eye strain predates the advent of computers, and patients have long reported symptoms ranging from dry, itchy eyes to blurred vision and headaches.

While excessive focus on paper documents can lead to eye strain, the explosion of digital technology in recent years has proven a game changer.

“The screens on our smartphones, computers and tablets emit a lot of high-energy, short-wavelength light in the blue-violet spectrum,” Asgarpour explains.

This blue light not only tires the eyes easily but Asgarpour says studies have shown it can exacerbate retinal cell damage and eventual macular degeneration, where eyesight is damaged in the centre of the visual field.

Blue light can even inhibit the body’s production of melatonin, which helps regulate sleep. “When we use blue-light-enriched devices, especially at night before going to sleep, it can cause us to stay awake longer,” Asgarpour says.

Asgarpour, a partner with, an online shopping portal specializing in optical products, often recommends eyeglasses with a coating designed to help block blue light. But he says prescriptions need to account for any other underlying visual conditions.

For instance, near or far-sightedness can cause people to squint to see clearly, which in turn can cause eye strain. And, people entering middle age can become presbyopic, where the eye’s focusing mechanism weakens. “That’s why people might start wearing progressive glasses to help with their up-close work,” Asgarpour says.

Even with the right eyewear, office workers need to make a conscious effort to keep their eyes fresh. Focusing on computer or cellphone screens can discourage blinking, so Asgarpour recommends getting into the habit of blinking purposefully on a regular basis to prevent dry eyes.

Asgarpour also advocates what he calls the 20-20-20 rule. “After every 20 minutes of work you should be mindful to look away from the computer screen for 20 seconds at a distance of 20 feet away,” he says. “It allows your focusing system to relax so you don’t overwork your eyes.”

While frequent breaks might be frowned upon in some high-pressure environments, Nicolle Kopping-Pavars says taking even momentary breaks can help keep office workers from entering autopilot mode.

In particular, she advocates mindfulness, a meditation-like practice that has become increasingly popular in recent years. “It’s taking anywhere from a couple of seconds to a few minutes and paying attention to how you’re feeling,” Kopping-Pavars says.

“Don’t judge your thoughts or emotions. Just take three deep breaths and think about how you happen to be feeling. Are you stressed or anxious? Do you have a headache? Acknowledge whatever you’re feeling and — boom — that’s it. You can then go back to whatever you were doing.”

A mindfulness break not only reboots your peepers but also your perspective. “You can go in with a new set of eyes, and that’s when you might catch a spelling error or realize you’re three-quarters of the way through a document so it’s not so bad,” Kopping-Pavars says.

Steve Prentice, a Toronto-based workplace productivity expert, says employees and employers need to recognize that the human body isn’t designed to run at an uninterrupted pace. “We can’t manage the same degree of momentum for hours at a time. We sprint and rest, sprint and rest, and work should be defined in the same way.”

Prentice says breaks need not be excessive. Two or three minutes three or four times an hour can work wonders. “I define break as completely getting away from the work at hand,” Prentice says. “Physically moving, standing up, getting your eyes off the screen, and most importantly getting your mind off the work.”

Prentice recommends standing up, stretching and even getting a glass of water. “Far more productivity can come from this pattern than from sitting there for an hour or two and soldiering on until you’re done. The notion that you can put in three or four hours of uninterrupted work of quality is a fallacy.”

Some people might switch momentarily to another task such as checking e-mail, but Prentice sees this as multitasking rather than as an adequate break. “If the e-mails are work related it means you’re still keeping that pace of work and probably even adding to your work pile and your stress because most e-mails are requests for other things,” he says.

Natalie MacDonald, a co-founding and co-managing partner at Rudner MacDonald in Toronto and Markham, says she experienced considerable eye strain a few years ago while working on drafts of her book, Extraordinary Damages in Canadian Employment Law.

“I was always reading off the screen and that was very difficult,” MacDonald says, describing sore eyes and sheer exhaustion.

While MacDonald now prints lengthy documents and e-mails if they require careful attention, she doesn’t dismiss the notion of the paperless office and says some people function perfectly well reading from screens.

MacDonald says carpal tunnel syndrome and other similar injuries are also prevalent these days, so her firm provides ergonomically assistive equipment.

“If we’re flexible with our staff and accommodate where we can we’ll have a much happier and healthier workforce, which in the long run means a more productive workforce.”

Click here to see this article in our digital edition (available to subscribers).