Coronavirus – supporting musculoskeletal care when working from home

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With millions of people working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, Fiona McGill explains what employees should watch out for, how employers can provide support and how OH can lead on best practice.

Even before the coronavirus lockdown, it was estimated that more than eight million employees were now working from home at least one day a week. However, the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent government advice that people should work from home if at all possible, has seen that number surge.

About the author

Fiona McGill is occupational health manager at BHSF

As well as the logistical, technological and operational issues this has generated for many employers, there are important health, safety and wellbeing issues that employers should be taking into account – and using occupational health professionals to advise upon and recommend best practice.

Posture and back care

Back pain costs the UK economy £10.7bn every year and one of the leading causes of sickness absence. Spending a prolonged period of time working on a laptop or a tablet with poor posture can be incredibly harmful to employees’ musculoskeletal health.

Research from BHSF from 2018 showed that more than half, 58%, of employees received no guidance from their employer on how to set up a workstation that supports healthy posture. More than two-thirds of workers also reported new pain since working from home.

By ensuring home workers are provided with the correct equipment and shown how to set up their workstation correctly, employers could prevent musculoskeletal conditions among their workforce.

Employers should also be making efforts in finding out about their employees’ home workstations and ensure they complete a Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessment.

Move your body

Worryingly, fewer than half of home workers say they “sometimes” include exercise as part of their working day. It is imperative therefore employees take, and are encouraged to take, regular breaks from their workstation.

The human body is not designed to sit for long periods of time. Even if employees exercise regularly, spending a lot of time sitting down can be bad for health, contributing to higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In an office, employees are far more likely to move away from their desks – going to meetings, speaking to colleagues or heading out for lunch. Employees working from home can spend hours in the same position, as they don’t have these natural interruptions to their day.

“Employers should be exploring ways in which they can encourage home workers to take breaks. This could be through apps or notifications to remind staff to take a break from the screen. At the same time, employees should also aim to take responsibility for their wellbeing. Even if it means walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water or going outside for a walk.

Communication

However, on a more positive note, three-quarters of employers in our research said they had made adjustments to connect home workers to the office. This included adopting the use of regular face-to-face meetings and video conferencing. This is a step in the right direction and, hopefully, with the current surge in home working this will only grow.

Looking after the physical health of employees working from home is key. Knowing that the majority of employers, based on our survey, have put in measures to ensure the team is connected, is a real positive.

When you also hear employees saying they feel “free” and “in control” while working at home, that is encouraging. This can help an employee to feel more productive and happier.

Finally, I would advise OH practitioners, if they’re not already, to be recommending to employers that they organise regular meetings through conference calls and introduce internal messaging systems.

This can help to make collaboration easier, create a company culture across the team of remote workers and ensure home workers feel part of the bigger picture.

References
‘How to improve home workers’ health and wellbeing’, The HR Director, March 2019, https://www.thehrdirector.com/features/employee-benefits-reward/improve-home-workers-health-wellbeing537/

‘Employers are overlooking chronic back pain at a £10.7bn cost to the economy’, October 2018, businessadvice.co.uk, https://businessadvice.co.uk/work-and-wellbeing/chronic-back-pain-employees-productivity/

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