Understanding the hidden health impact of working from home

health impact
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Richard Guy, Country Sales Manager UK & Ireland at Ergotron, explores some of the options available for workers and their employers to try and combat the health impact of working from home

Back in March, when the UK government first imposed a national lockdown in response to the global health crisis, no one could have envisaged how such a dramatic change in working conditions would have long-term implications for both the physical and mental health of workers.

Overnight, organisations had to move fast and implement new remote-working models to enable employees to work productively from home. Despite the easing of national restrictions over the summer, recent weeks have seen the government once again issue official guidance that people should work from home wherever possible.

The changing nature of how we work, triggered by the ongoing global health crisis, means many of us will have to continue to work flexibly for the foreseeable future. Yet research shows that the past few months of working from home has already extracted a toll on the physical wellbeing of UK workers.

Musculoskeletal complaints are on the rise

The switch to working from home saw millions of people having to make do with dining room tables, kitchen worktops or coffee tables as their designated workspaces. For younger people living in shared accommodation, often the only option was to retreat from housemates and head to the bedroom.

Without access to an appropriate workstation at home, it didn’t take long for people to start to feel the physical strain of spending eight hours or more in front of a device or electronic display.

Conducted during the first two weeks of the initial lockdown, the Working from Home Wellbeing Survey undertaken by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) reveals how homeworkers quickly experienced a significant jump in musculoskeletal complaints. Compared to their normal physical condition, people reported suffering a number of new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%).

For employers who take their health and safety obligations seriously, these findings should be a major cause for concern. Without the appropriate seating, desks, and screen displays, employees who work long hours from home are putting their physical wellbeing – and ultimately their ability to work productively – at risk.

The good news is that encouraging people to make some simple ergonomic changes to the way they work from home can help them become stronger, fitter, and better equipped to cope with whatever the working day throws at them.

Simple steps to staying fitter and healthier

Great for general wellness, moving from one posture to another when working in front of a computer for long periods of time can help alleviate the cumulative hazards of poor posture and too much sitting while improving circulation, calorie-burn, and insulin management.

Taking mini-breaks at regular intervals to stretch and move away from a screen is another great way to relax eyes, wrists, and bodies. Using the right monitor mount will give computer users much greater control over how and where they position screens, enabling them to align screens to their line of sight and minimise any risk of neck and eye strain.

Similarly, having a sit-stand desk will enable people to easily alternate periods of standing and sitting throughout the working day. By adding more variety to their working routines, they’ll be engaging in the kind of low-intensity ergonomic and physical activity that has been shown to boost physical wellbeing and productivity. For homeworkers that don’t have access to this kind of desk, then using books to set up an equivalent on a countertop that lifts their laptop into their line of sight is one way to mimic the work standing experience.

Other basic ergonomic steps that can help boost posture include finding a firm cushion to sit on. This supports both good back posture and will help to raise wrists and arms in line with a keyboard. In a similar way, rolling up a towel and placing this behind the lumbar region will reduce the risk of slumping when seated. Finally, setting an alarm reminder to get up and move around every 30 minutes is another great way of giving the body a break from being stuck in one position for too long.

Making the most of space

Creating a comfortable and productive home working environment can sometimes be a challenge. Not everyone has a room that they can convert to a dedicated office. Sometimes, a room has to double as a bedroom at night, and office by day. Many people also no longer have the luxury of a separate dining room. With the average British house size now 20% smaller than in the 1970s, finding smart and flexible solutions that enable people to make the most of the space they have and create an ergonomically safe working environment is a top priority.

This means they need smart ergonomic working solutions that will enable them to discreetly create a designated work area without having to move other furnishings around.

Today’s sit-stand desks and monitor mounts are the ideal solution for homeworkers that need to be able to relocate their work environment out of sight at the end of the day. Space-saving fold-down wall desks are another ideal solution for space-constrained living quarters.

Looking to the future

A recent employee survey conducted by Cardiff University and the University of Southampton in June reveals how more and more of us intend to continue working more flexibly, an indication that our working patterns are set to change for good. An impressive 88% of people who worked from home during lockdowns wanted the option to continue to work remotely, with 47% saying they wanted to do so often or all of the time.

With everything pointing to working from home becoming the norm for many, employers will need to develop procedures that ensure staff are working safely and in ways that do not impact their physical health. That might include allowing employees to complete a home working risk assessment, checking that they have the right desks, chairs, and workstations, so they can work in an ergonomic manner.

Ultimately, minimising the risks to physical wellbeing by using the power of ergonomics to foster working habits that look after our bodies will lead to more productive work habits. After all, who feels motivated if our bodies are stressed and in pain because of awkward postures?

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