Work

Supporting employee musculoskeletal care while working from home

Lockdown; remote working; flexible working; the “new normal.” Everyone’s individual reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is slightly different, but for many of us, the common denominator is doing all or most of our work from home.

As of September 2020, 40% of the UK workforce are working from home, representing some 11.1 million people in environments that aren’t necessarily conducive to physical health. Musculoskeletal (MSK) problems – conditions that affect the joints, bones and muscles - have been on the up, ever since many of us adopted home working: for example, the Institute for Employment Studies has revealed a “huge uptick” in reports of back pain since the advent of remote working prompted by the pandemic.

MSK problems are no laughing matter: they can creep up on any of us and with this new way of working, four in five of those working from home are set to develop musculoskeletal pain. 

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Why does home working correlate with increased risk for musculoskeletal problems?

  • Lockdown happened very suddenly, thrusting many of us into homeworking scenarios where we had to improvise. Whilst balancing a laptop on your knee during a Zoom call was once quite novel and whilst getting a report out using your ironing board as your desk is still wonderfully creative, neither of these approaches are kind to your back or your posture.

  • The pandemic continues to throw curveballs at us all, professionally and personally. Under these circumstances, making the necessary home working adaptations may prove to be more challenging than usual: for many, money is tighter, the freedom to shop around for the right products is more restricted and anxieties around the long term business prognosis for COVID-19 can eclipse the more practical matter of adjusting your environment for the here and now.

  • In a given workplace, risk assessments allow employers to keep a tab on the physical wellbeing of their employees’ workspaces: remotely, this is much more difficult to achieve; and the impact of COVID-19 on business continuity has meant that this has - understandably - fallen off the list of many organisations.

What are the musculoskeletal risks if we carry on like this?

The problems all start with poor posture, brought about by less-than-ideal seating and working arrangements in the typical work-from-home arrangement. 

  • Ordinarily, those who spend a lot of their day sitting (e.g. at a computer) would have a reasonably ergonomic chair and desk set-up, allowing the spine to be elongated. Poor seating arrangements, equate to us sitting in “C” shape, which is the root cause of many MSK problems, whether or not they are pre-existing.

  • A typical workplace is a hubbub of banter, interruptions and meetings - all of which make us get up from our seats and walk around, even if only to the water cooler. Remote working is seeing more of us spend protracted periods of time sat stationary. We need to move, whether that’s proactively walking or stretching ourselves out every so often.

  • Online conferences have been a huge help in keeping teams connected during the pandemic. However, the act of staring down at a screen to engage with people exacerbates the problems with posture, since this usually entails us overextending our chins to focus on what’s being said via video.

How can employees help themselves?

It starts with an acceptance of home working and/ or flexible working as a permanent or semi-permanent way of working. Mindset needs to  turn from “it’s just for a while longer” to “my job will never be the same again” which will help your employees want to invest in the part of their home they use as an office during working hours. Here are some tips you can share with your employees to help them improve their musculoskeletal care:

  • Invest in the basics: a height adjustable chair, a peripheral mouse (to combat the problems associated with fiddling around on a laptop trackpad), a wrist wrest and a foot rest. Given just how long we have already spent working remotely and/ or flexibly, the outlook for this way of working looks set to remain for the long term. Shouldn’t you invest in your wellbeing when you would most likely speak up if you were cramped, struggling to type or otherwise uncomfortable in an office?

  • If you haven’t got the finances right now, there are some compromise “hacks” to help you on your way. A book or an angled lever arch file will elevate a laptop to a more ergonomic height and position. Above all, resist the temptation to run your working day from your sofa: it’s an absolute no-no in terms of your posture! 

  • Consider asking your employer for the things that you need and can’t afford. They should be willing to help you make your home working space the best it can be, within reason!

  • Scheduling breaks is just as important for your physical wellbeing as it is for your mental wellbeing. If you feel that you don’t have sufficient time for this, we suggest breaking up the conventional working day and taking your lunchtime allocation over several smaller pauses throughout the day.

  • Move more! Whether it’s going for a walk, marching on the spot or shrugging your shoulders gently every so often, your actions will pay dividends to your aching body. We recommend moving every half an hour to avoid the dreaded seize up!

You can also support the physical wellbeing of your remote employees by downloading our guide to keeping mobile with daily exercises.

How can employers help their teams?

A comfortable workforce is a more productive one, so we urge employers to take some time to see if their teams’ needs are being met whilst working remotely.

  • Can you conduct a remote risk assessment? For the best uptake, keep questions short and pointed. Ask each of your team members what they lack and what they need.

  • Many workplaces are highly portable, so please do arrange delivery of workstation aids, such as wrist rests and foot rests. Flexible working most certainly appears to be here as a new way of working, so it follows that each of your team members needs to be as able to do their job at home just as well as they can do within the four walls of your organisation.

  • For businesses based on desktop computers, now is the time to assess the likelihood of your team being based more at home or more in the office. For home workers, having their desktop delivered to them isn’t as mad as it sounds: setting up a full computer at home will encourage them to rethink their space and find an appropriate desk and seat. Once again, this set-up is far more conducive to getting people into the “working” mindset, so you will see a huge return on the time and money you invest in getting items to your team members.

  • Can you gamify exercise for your team and help bring out some camaraderie? A simple challenge, such as a prize win for the team that completes the most steps in a week, would be so powerful. This approach not only facilitates exercise, but shows your team that taking a quick break and looking after their health is endorsed from the top down.

  • Rapid access to physiotherapy, particularly first contact physiotherapy (FCP), will be an ever increasing need during lockdown, for all of the reasons above. There’s already a backlog of patients waiting to be seen, so it pays to have a partner on side who can provide your team with rapid assessment and referrals if needed. Timely intervention from physiotherapists isn’t just about getting the injured back to work; it’s about keeping healthy people in work and away from long term injury.

As part of Benenden Health for Business your employees can request to speak to a physiotherapist if required, as just one of our many benefits for the physical and mental wellbeing of you and your team. Our promise is accessible healthcare to all, so we do this for just £11.50 per team member per month. Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179 for more advice on keeping your team healthy and well as they work remotely.

Find out how Benenden Healthcare for Business could support your employees:

Got a question and want to know more? Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179.