Home working and increased use of video meetings have caused musculoskeletal issues to soar during the pandemic. Occupational health has a vital role to play in managing these risks in our new ‘hybrid’ working world, as well as providing education and reassurance to employers and employees alike, argues Claire Glynn.
Increased homeworking has caused musculoskeletal (MSK) issues to soar. Four out of five employees have experienced neck, shoulder and back pain. Consequently, almost one in two (46%) of employees now take pain medication more often than they would like.
This is in no small part due to poor ergonomic practices, which saw a quarter of employees during the successive lockdowns working from their bed, sofa or dining table. But lack of movement is also an issue. One person in three has become less active since the pandemic started, while increased use of video meetings have been forcing employees to sit still for long periods.
With three-quarters of workers keen to continue working from home, employers now need to ensure their hybrid working models reduce the risk of MSK pain. This pain can result not only from increasingly sedentary working practices and poor posture when using screens, but also hunching due to ineffective lighting, carrying heavy equipment between the home and office or sharing equipment not set up for their individual needs while hot-desking.
Proactively encourage movement
As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure. So, one of the best ways to prevent MSK issues is to encourage employees to stay active. Unfortunately, new working practices, such as the rise in Zoom and Teams meetings, are encouraging employees to remain increasingly sedentary at their desks. Yet sitting for long periods without any movement breaks during or between meetings is almost certain to exacerbate MSK issues.
The resulting ‘face-time’ culture also means many employees are worried about leaving their desk in case they’re not there if their manager decides to check in with them.
To combat this, encourage managers to give their people the freedom to get up and away from their desk between tasks. Allow them to use the phone, instead of purely relying on video or voice calls directed through their computer, so they can move about while talking. They could even organise a ‘walking meeting’ for people to catch up, in person, or over the phone (with a pair of ergonomic headphones), while they go for a walk.
Also important for ensuring people aren’t remaining sedentary at their ‘desk’ all day, in a way that will increase their risk of MSK injuries, is reminding them that hybrid working should also mean flexible working. Movement is good, so if they can fit their work around getting out and about at lunchtime, go for a run in the morning or doing yoga or the school run in the afternoon, they should be encouraged to do this to keep fit and active.
Encourage employees to think about how they can incorporate more movement into their day. A novel way to do this is by ‘commuting home’ – in other words, going for a walk around the block to decompress after work, even if they now work from home.
They could also take movement breaks after completing tasks, to get up and stretch and move about on a regular basis. If employees aren’t sure how to stay active during the working day, you can provide training, or a webinar, to share practical tips on how to sustain good musculoskeletal health by staying active.
Educate and assess risk
Essential to reducing the rise in MSK injuries is helping employees to take stock of the risks they personally face and educating them how to take steps to reduce this.
Any employee using display screen equipment (DSE), including computers, laptops and smartphones, for more than an hour at a time is legally required to have a DSE risk assessment – whether they work from home or the office. If hybrid working means they’re working from both the office and home you have a duty of care to assess both options.
This assessment should ideally be conducted by a trained ergonomic specialist, in person or remotely. They should show employees how best to use their equipment, including how to adjust their posture and the importance of taking breaks. Part of the education around managing their DSE needs to include the fact that it is the employee’s responsibility to adjust any shared equipment to meet their individual needs before they start to use it.
In some cases, a working-from-home risk assessment may show an employee is unable to work without discomfort. Perhaps they live in shared accommodation, don’t have anywhere to put a desk or can’t work ergonomically from their bedroom. In such an instance, you might have to help them accept that home or hybrid working isn’t right for them.”
If you don’t have the resource to offer this to all employees starting to work in new ways at once, then providing access to online training and an online DSE assessment, for employees to complete themselves, can help to quickly identify those most at risk of injury, so you can prioritise these individuals first.
Act on recommendations
Following their DSE risk assessment, many individuals will be advised on adjustments they can make and recommendations for additional or alternative equipment. Suggestions might include an ergonomic mouse or keyboard or an adjustable chair, but should be acted upon to prevent more costly injuries and absence issues further down the line.
In some cases, a working-from-home risk assessment may show an employee is unable to work without discomfort. Perhaps they live in shared accommodation, don’t have anywhere to put a desk or can’t work ergonomically from their bedroom. In such an instance, you might have to help them accept that home or hybrid working isn’t right for them and provide an appropriate alternative (typically back in the office).
Alternatively, it might be that an employee with an existing MSK issue, perhaps still waiting for an operation, is able to work comfortably from home but not able to cope with the commute into the physical office as well. In such a case, you need to ask if it’s really in that individual’s best interest to return to the physical workplace.
Where people are already experiencing MSK issues, or issues setting up an ergonomic homeworking environment, it’s important to make them feel safe asking for help. It’s far easier to help someone struggling with setting up equipment at home than someone requiring weeks of physiotherapy to work again. Even so, many people are reluctant to seek help. They might be worried for their job security, or desperate to work from home.
So, reassure people you want to help them to stay healthy and make sure they know how to contact any occupational health, physiotherapy or DSE services you have in place.