Remote working and the risks to physical health

Since March, millions more employees have experienced the highs and lows of working at home. While many are enjoying the benefits of avoiding tedious commutes, a better work/life balance and more autonomy over their working day, it hasn’t been without its downsides. The strain on employees’ mental health following the sudden switch to working from home is already high on the radar.

In fact, of the mental health appointments provided by Unum’s [email protected] service over the summer, 76% related to stress, anxiety or depression. These are conditions that can benefit significantly from early support and intervention.

However, it’s not just mental health businesses need to keep a close eye on. Remote working poses dangers to employees’ physical health that may be unexpected or go unnoticed.

With the Prime Minister announcing on 22nd September that all those employees who can work at home should do so for the foreseeable future, large scale remote working is here to stay for the foreseeable. Employers need to inform their employees of the risks and take steps to keep them comfortable and healthy.

To help, Beth Husted, Rehabilitation and Wellbeing Manager at Unum has shared three common hazards employees face while working from home and tips on how to prevent them:

‘Tech Neck’

‘Tech Neck’ is the stress caused to muscles in the neck, back and shoulders by learning forward to look at smartphones, tablets, or computers for long periods of time. Common symptoms are headaches, neck stiffness and muscle spasms.

  • When sitting at your workstation, position the neck so if you were to nod or fall asleep, your head would tip backwards, not forwards.
  • Have good lumber support for your back.
  • Ensure your body weight is supported by your chair and that all your weight is not going through the spine.
  • Move the neck and shoulders regularly to get the blood flowing.

Musculoskeletal issues

While laptops allow for remote working, what makes a laptop useful also causes problems. The low screen and the small keyboard encourage the body to hunch forward and doesn’t provide the proper support for your wrists. Using a laptop for long periods of time can wreak havoc on posture and cause repetitive strain injuries (RSI) in the fingers and hands.

A laptop also encourages people to opt for makeshift workstations rather than a proper desk. These can cause huge postural and muscles problems, with hours spent in unsupported and unsuitable positions that put the spine in particular, under huge strain.

  1. Always sit at a desk or table.
  2. Use a separate keyboard and mouse. This will help you keep the forearms roughly horizontal, with the wrists in a neutral position.
  3. Position the screen so that the top of it is level with your eyes. This may mean using a laptop stand or a separate monitor.
  4. Sit on a chair that can be adjusted to the right height and position and provides effective support to the back.
  5. If needed, use a footrest so that feet aren’t dangling off the floor. Having something to rest your feet on will help prevent pains in the legs, provide extra support and reduce strain on the back.

Sitting still for too long

Even before lockdown, employees who worked at a desk were spending 75% of their time sitting down1. This sedentary existence causes a whole number of health issues, including increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sitting for long periods is also associated with poor mental health – people feel their minds work better when they are moving2. With research showing that employees are working for an extra 48 minutes a day on average since lockdown, it’s likely they’ll be sitting still for an even bigger part of the day3.

  • Encourage employees to take a proper lunch break away from their desks, including getting outside and doing some form of exercise if possible.
  • Promote team building activities that require employees to leave their desks, such as a walking challenge or taking the most creative picture of their surroundings.
  • Provide employees with simple exercise guides and stretches that can be done anywhere
  • Encourage them to follow the 40-20 rule – employees should sit for a maximum of 40 minutes and stand and move around for the other 20.
  • Lead by example – show senior leaders being active away from their desks to encourage others to do the same and reinforce the message that activity is necessary and important.
  • Don’t make every call a video call – encourage a mix of audio and visual calls so that employees can walk around when on the phone, helping them to build more exercise into their day.