Remote working and the risks to physical health
Since March, millions more employees have experienced the highs and lows of working at home. While many are enjoying the benefits of avoiding tedious commutes, a better work/life balance and more autonomy over their working day, it hasn’t been without its downsides. The strain on employees’ mental health following the sudden switch to working from home is already high on the radar. A survey by LinkedIn in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation revealed more than half of UK workers felt more anxious or stressed while working from home1.
However, it’s not just mental health businesses need to keep a close eye on. Remote working poses dangers to employees’ physical health that may be unexpected or go unnoticed.
Working on equipment not designed for prolonged usage, spending hours sitting down in an unsupported position and failing to move around enough can all have serious health implications. With the Prime Minister announcing on 22nd September that all those employees who can work at home should do so for the foreseeable future, large scale remote working is here to stay for the next few months. Employers need to inform their employees of the risks, and take steps to keep them comfortable and healthy.
Here are some common hazards employees face while working from home and handy tips on how to prevent them.
‘Tech neck’ is the stress caused to muscles in the neck, back and shoulders by learning forward to look at smartphones, tablets, or computers for long periods of time. Common symptoms are headaches, neck stiffness and muscle spasms. In severe cases, it can cause discs in the neck or back to bulge or even rupture.
The head is heavy. The average adult head weighs around 5kg or 11lbs2. That’s substantially more than the average weight of a new-born baby, and a lot for the seven vertebrae in the neck to support. That effort increases enormously when we look down for hours on end.
This a problem particularly for those working remotely on electronic devices for much of the day. It’s easy to lose track of how much time we spend looking down. In 2019, the average adult spent almost three and a half hours on their smartphones every day3. With lockdown and people relying on these devices even more, the figure for 2020 is likely to be substantially higher, with tech neck becoming an increasingly serious problem.
Reducing computers to a size where they can be easily carried and fit on your lap was an important step in starting the move to remote working. However, what makes a laptop useful also causes problems. The low screen and the small keyboard encourage the body to hunch forward and don’t provide the proper support for your wrists. Using a laptop for long periods of time can wreak havoc on posture and cause repetitive strain injuries (RSI) in the fingers and hands.
A laptop also encourages people to move around the house, and work from the lounge, kitchen, or bedroom, rather than a proper desk. Makeshift workstations can cause huge postural and muscles problems, with hours spent in unsupported and unsuitable positions that put the spine in particular, under huge strain.
During lockdown, a Nuffield Health survey discovered a quarter of employees were working from the sofa, a quarter were working from their bed and 17% were sitting on the floor4. The effect of this can already be seen with more than half of those now working from home experiencing new back, neck and shoulder pain5. If so many employees are already having problems, without action, the UK could be facing an epidemic of new musculoskeletal issues.
Here's our one-page guide on how to set up a desk correctly.
Even before lockdown, employees who worked at a desk were spending 75% of their time sitting down6. This sedentary existence causes a whole number of health issues, including increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sitting for long periods is also associated with poor mental health – people feel their minds work better when they are moving7. With research showing that employees are working for an extra 48 minutes a day on average since lockdown, it’s likely they’ll be sitting still for an even bigger part of the day8.
Working in an office alongside colleagues provides lots of opportunities to get up and move around. Going to meetings, having a coffee break, or collecting printouts are all reasons to move and get the blood circulating. These opportunities are reduced when working at home – often in isolation. Taking microbreaks of between one and five minutes helps to lower the risk of RSI and allows muscles to be stretched. Since working at home, 50% of employees say they have gone for a walk less frequently and 47% say they are not taking a break every hour as much as they would do in the office9. With this being the case, employers need to work with employees to help them find ways to move more and retain a healthy level of activity. Resources such as our U-First ‘Movement matters’ workshop (for Unum customers) or our podcast on ‘Sedentary behaviour and dispelling myths’ can help.
And visit our e-module on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) which looks at common MSDs, their effects and how to prevent them. It also includes downloadable tools and resources.
In 2018-19, 6.9 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders10. Without action, this figure could increase significantly if employers and employees don’t pay sufficient attention to safeguarding physical health through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Backcare Awareness Week from 5th to 9th October is the perfect opportunity to highlight the benefits for employees to sit correctly while working and to move regularly.