Now that working from home has become the norm for so many of us, and the dust is beginning to settle on those challenging first few months of the pandemic, we are waking up to the way home-working can affect our physical health. As it’s been over a year since the UK went into its first lockdown, there is now plenty of information out there which can give us a picture of how home-workers are faring during these unprecedented times. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
Before the pandemic hit and the first lockdown was announced in the UK, around 1.54million people worked from home as their main job. This rose to around 25.6million during lockdown, with many set to continue working at home for the foreseeable future.
Even before COVID-19, we all knew that a shift in work patterns was coming; the benefits of flexible working for both employees and employers was already clear to see in those bold enough to try it out. This unprecedented step forwards for so many workers has been a bit of a shock for employers and employees alike, but it has also served to dramatically reduce the stigma surrounding working from home.
It’s now obvious to everyone that businesses of all sizes can continue to function when their office-based workforce is performing their tasks at home, with many thriving under these new conditions. A survey of 2,000 UK companies showed that two-thirds are making permanent changes to their working policies; allowing their employees more flexibility over when and where they work.
For some people forced to work from home for the first time, doing so was very easy. They may have already had a desk in a quiet corner, a spare room they could use for privacy, and no children to home-school. For those who already worked from home occasionally, it’s likely that their employer will have already provided advice, equipment and support - as is the law under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations.
For others, however, working from home presented a very different set of challenges. There may not have been any space in which to work quietly and without distractions. They may have had one or more children to home-school and keep entertained during working hours; which resulted in sharing make-shift workstations, such as the dining room table or kitchen countertops.
Where at-home workstations are concerned, workers find themselves in a challenging situation – on one hand, the control over their work environment falls upon them alone. If they came from offices that were not set up to meet the needs of each individual, workers may now feel more comfortable in their ‘office’ environment, where they can control the lighting, temperature and furniture to meet their specific needs. On the other hand, workers may not pay as much attention to DSE health & safety concerns as their employer does (and must, by law). This can result in employees working in spaces which are not properly ventilated, or in a way which could cause long-term injury without realising it, for example.
In one study which looked at the impact of homeworking, just 41.2% of people working from home had a dedicated office space. This leaves the other 58.8% with potentially unsuitable workstation set ups, where they are slouched over a laptop on the sofa, or sharing a dining table with other members of the family. Many people are even working from bed – a necessity in shared households where a bedroom is the only place of privacy.
Failing to properly support the back, neck and wrists properly when sitting at a computer all day can have painful consequences which may not be felt until months or years down the line. Some would argue that ensuring the physical wellbeing of employees at home is more important now than ever, in order to mitigate the damage that is already being done.
According to data analysis by health and safety consultants Arinite, just 1.4% of musculoskeletal disorder cases were attributed to work in 2019, yet by 2020 this figure had risen sharply, to 37.7%. This rise has been attributed to insufficient workstation set-ups as people work more at home. This trend will continue unless employers take action to ensure their workforce are educated on the risks and have the support and equipment they need to be able to work safely.
Despite having more freedom to take proper breaks, some who worked from home reported that they were moving around less. This was mainly due to the fact they were no longer required to walk to and from meetings, commute from home and undertake business travel. This, coupled with unsuitable workstation set-ups, has caused more back and neck problems for workers, particularly in the lower back.
Physiotherapists have reported the same issues in their patients, alongside more knee and shoulder pain, as well as hand and wrist problems. Using a keyboard for long periods can have more of a stressful impact on the body than we may realise, and the positive impact of regular breaks, stretching and gentle exercise during the working day should not be underestimated.
There are many reasons why employees may not be reporting their pain, but as we move into home-working in the long-term it’s clearly more important than ever that they do. The charity Versus Arthritis found that 89% of those suffering with back, shoulder and neck pain as a result of their new workspace had not told their employer about it. It is the employer’s legal responsibility to ensure their employee’s health and safety at work, whether that’s in the office or at home. However, part of this support relies on employees reporting problems, particularly now when businesses are recovering from the initial challenges and distractions of the pandemic, and before issues become entrenched.
The suddenness of the changes to almost every aspect of our lives has been a lot to deal with, for individuals and businesses alike. Versus Arthritis also found that 35% of office workers had received no equipment, support or advice from their employer about home working, which rose to a disappointing 45% among employees of larger businesses of up to 499 staff.
The lack of support from employers at this time has been one of the factors in the rise of musculoskeletal disorders seen by GPs and physiotherapists – a third of employees had spoken to a medical professional about their new working-from-home pain.
The concern is that this places further strain on the NHS at a time when they are already stretched, and when employers should have been providing more support to their staff in the first place. It is time that at-home workstation set-ups are taken seriously by employers, and more support needs to be given to those who have had little time, space or means to create a suitable work environment.