Are mobile working patterns contributing to an increase in repetitive strain injury?


With the growing use of mobile technology, both at home and at work, more employees are suffering from repetitive strain injuries. In his second article on disability technology, ergonomics expert Robin Christopherson looks at what employers can do to tackle the problem.

The advent of mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops has dramatically changed how and where we work. There is much celebration of the efficiency savings and gains for work-life balance to be made from enabling your workforce to work remotely or on the go, whether it is from home, on a train, bus or in a coffee shop between meetings.

However, the constant use of mobile devices is thought to be contributing to an increase in the prevalence of repetitive strain injury (RSI), a condition traditionally associated with desktop PCs and telephones.

RSI is a term most commonly used in the UK to group together a variety of conditions associated with repeating the same activities. It includes work-related upper-limb disorders, cumulative trauma disorder, carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries from overuse of joints and limbs.

Three in five people have repetitive strain injury symptoms

Evidence from the Health and Safety Executive suggests that the problem is widespread, with three in five office workers with symptoms of RSI taking an average of 15.9 days sickness absence each year. Even more surprising is that, according to the TUC, six people leave their jobs each day as a result of an RSI.

When technology firm Microsoft conducted a survey into the relationship between RSIs and mobile devices back in 2008, smartphones and tablets were not the phenomenon they are today. Six years ago Microsoft surveyed more than 1,000 office workers, HR managers and office managers and found that a majority (68%) of office workers were suffering from aches and pains associated with RSI. The most common complaints among the workers were backache, shoulder pain and wrist or hand pain.

Smartphones here to stay

Mobile devices are now commonplace and experts are predicting that their use will only continue to increase. More and more of us are using smartphones and tablets both at home and at work. To keep things simple, many employers are now operating a “bring your own device to work” policy.

The demand for this originally came from employees wanting to use their preferred devices for personal convenience, or because their own device has specialist software or apps that have been installed to support their disability or long-term health condition. In practice it means that more of us are using the same devices during working hours and leisure time with no real break in between.

Research into mobile consumer behaviour in consultancy Deloitte’s report Mobile Consumer 2014: The UK cut – Revolution and evolution showed that:

  • 35 million people in the UK own a smartphone;
  • one in six adults look at their phone more than 50 times a day;
  • more than 30% of adults look at their phone within five minutes of waking up; and
  • the average instant message user sends more than 55 messages per day.

Repeated manual use of the iconic glass screen on smartphones and tablets can sometimes cause or exacerbate an RSI. Tapping out scores of text messages or emails on an unforgiving, immovable surface, swiping your way through apps or website content, as well as holding the device for prolonged periods of time is increasingly likely to eventually take its toll.

These devices are designed so that they can be hand-held, so as well as all the tapping, swiping and “pinching”, we are asking our hands to continuously hold an additional 150 to 500 grams (depending on the make and model) for hours on end.

What can employers do?

Organisations should consider the following:

  • ensure task variation or task rotation – especially for data input roles;
  • allow employees to take regular breaks from their computers and mobile devices;
  • provide stands and separate keyboards for mobile devices;
  • update policies about mobile working and safe device use;
  • do not issue a full keyboard unless it is needed (this is unrelated to mobile use but is, nevertheless, a top tip to prevent RSIs for all users who do not need a number pad);
  • provide training for employees and line managers on disability and RSI awareness;
  • monitor sickness absence rates that relate to RSIs; and
  • take RSIs seriously – prevention is far better than having to identify an effective cure.

For more information on RSI and computing, download a copy of AbilityNet’s factsheet, RSI and computing including work-related upper limb disorder.

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