More than 71% of Americans work from home (WFH) due to COVID-19, a huge jump from the 20% who stated they were remote workers before the pandemic.
Ideally, these remote workers would have a home office equipped with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-recommended workstations. However, many employees unaccustomed to working from home may sit at kitchen tables or recline in their beds with their spine arched and heads tilted down at a laptop.
Over time, working in these awkward body positions can cause or contribute to musculoskeletal pain. In fact, a scientific survey of employees WFH due to the pandemic found that neck pain worsened in 50% of participants and back pain increased in more than 38% of workers.
WFH Preferred by Employees, But at What Cost?
Returning employees to the office, however, is likely not an option for most organizations for several more months, due to the rise of new virus strains and slow vaccine roll out. Even after the pandemic is expected to have subsided, 82% of employers expect WFH will continue. Similarly, 82% of workers agreed or strongly agreed they like WFH.
WFH environments may be preferred by employees, but there is a dark side. Other than the musculoskeletal pain, pre-pandemic research on WFH showed that it causes feelings of isolation and loneliness in some workers. Likewise, 30% of nonessential workers surveyed last year who were working from home due to COVID-19 reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder and 8% seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. It’s no surprise then that 69% of WFH employees surveyed last summer already reported feeling burned out.
Creating a Healthy Home Office
These mental health issues can be exacerbated by physical pain and vice versa. With 76% of remote workers’ time spent on a computer, employers can recommend some tips to their employees to prevent chronic shoulder, wrist, neck, back or other types of musculoskeletal disorders due to overuse or unsafe ergonomic practices.
At the same time, WFH employees should remedy any nagging aches or pains that could lead to critical health problems or disabilities. Establishing a telehealth relationship with a mental or behavioral professional should also be considered for employees coping with anxiety or depressive disorders. With this strategy, a remote work or WFH policy can be a true cost savings and employee-engagement booster.
To facilitate a safe and productive environment for remote employees, it is important to include ergonomic training and tips to maintain a healthy workspace. Here’s how:
Switch it Up: The ergonomic goal of any workspace is to enable a neutral body position where the joints are naturally aligned. Although sitting is most common for computer work, some workers may prefer a sit-stand desk. Switching between sitting and standing enables employees to alternate work positions according to their needs. Sit-stand desks or attachments are affordable and easily converted to standing or sitting positions manually or by pushing a button.
Take a Seat: When employees are sitting, a comfortable but supportive chair that can be adjusted for body type is essential to prevent back and neck pain. For example, additional back support, such as a lumbar cushion, is available for chairs to further encourage better spinal alignment. Likewise, be sure employees keep their keyboard and mouse at roughly the same height as their elbows to enable a neutral body position.
Get the Legs Up: Offering enough legroom underneath a stable desk surface is also crucial for ergonomic safety as is positioning legs at the appropriate height. Footrests can help employees keep their legs and hips approximately parallel to the floor.
The Eyes Have It: A consistent office light source should provide sufficient visibility to prevent eye strain and headaches. Likewise, desks should be located away from windows to avoid sun glare. Positioning the desktop computer monitor at eye level and arm’s length away (about 20 inches) can help protect the eyes and ward off posture-related discomfort.
For eyeglass wearers, having prescription eyeglasses tailor made for computer use is recommended; regular eyeglasses are usually for distance and/or reading but not for a computer monitor placed two feet away from you. Non-prescription glasses that block irritating blue light emanating from computer monitors and electronic devices, as well as enabling “night shift” mode for your computer, can lessen exposure for all workers and help eyes feel fresher and sharper.
Set Boundaries and Reduce Stress
It is difficult to remove distractions when children and a spouse or partner may also be working virtually. Designating and maintaining a specific home-office space away from others, however, can support a more productive, less stressful work environment, as can taking breaks away from the home office space. Walking or jogging for exercise or just to get out of the house can refresh and reduce stress. Massage, acupuncture, reflexology and chiropractic care are also all highly effective for relieving chronic stress and joint pain.
While an end to the COVID-19 pandemic may be in sight, employers can expect their teams to continue WFH at least until mid-summer, if not longer. To keep workers healthy and productive through the spring, make sure they follow the ergonomic principles outlined here so they do not return to the office with new musculoskeletal disorders that will inhibit their engagement and success over the long term.