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    Remote working and the risks to physical health

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    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.

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    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

    ‘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.

    Preventative measures

    • When sitting at your workstation, position the neck so if you were to nod or fall asleep, your head would tip backwards, not forwards.
    • Have good lumber support for your back.
    • Ensure your body weight is supported by your chair and that all your weight is not going through the spine.
    • Move the neck and shoulders regularly to get the blood flowing. This washes away the chemicals that cause pain and inflammation that build up within the muscles.

    Working from a laptop full-time

    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.

    Preventative measures

    • Always sit at a desk or table.
    • Use a separate keyboard and mouse. This will help you keep the forearms roughly horizontal, with the wrists in a neutral position.
    • Position the screen so that the top of it is level with your eyes. This may mean using a laptop stand or a separate monitor.
    • Sit on a chair that can be adjusted to the right height and position and provides effective support to the back.
    • If needed, use a footrest so that feet aren’t dangling off the floor. Having something to rest your feet on will help prevent pains in the legs, provide extra support and reduce strain on the back.

    Here's our one-page guide on how to set up a desk correctly.

    Sitting still for too long

    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.

    Preventative measures

    • Encourage employees to take a proper lunch break away from their desks, including getting outside and doing some form of exercise if possible.
    • Promote team building activities that require employees to leave their desks, such as a walking challenge or taking the most creative picture of their surroundings.
    • Provide employees with simple exercise guides and stretches that can be done anywhere
    • Encourage them to follow the 40-20 rule – employees should sit for a maximum of 40 minutes and stand and move around for the other 20.
    • Lead by example – show senior leaders being active away from their desks to encourage others to do the same, and reinforce the message that activity is necessary and important.
    • Don’t make every call a video call – encourage a mix of audio and visual calls so that employees can walk around when on the phone, helping them to build more exercise into their day.

    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.

    1. https://www.linkedin.com/feed/news/the-mental-strain-of-wfh-5194634/
    2. https://www.gwosteopathy.co.uk/much-head-weigh
    3. https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/1165745/phone-usage-average-adult-social-media-britain-study
    4. https://www.nuffieldhealth.com/article/makeshift-workspaces-causing-postural-problems-for-brits-working-from-home-1-in-10-resorting-to-painkillers-to-ease-aches-pains
    5. https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/working-from-home-do-staff-have-suitable-equipment/
    6.http://hrnews.co.uk/office-workers-spend-75-of-their-waking-hours-sitting/
    7. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/activity/sitting-down
    8. https://workplaceinsight.net/people-work-longer-and-different-hours-under-lockdown/
    9. https://wearewildgoose.com/uk/news/the-working-from-home-employee-survey/
    10. https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/msd.pdf