The launch into a work from home (WFH) world has demonstrated advantages for employers and employees. However, new research and my professional experience show the WFH shift has been accompanied by growing aches, pain and musculoskeletal discomfort, even with the support of ergonomics checklists and follow-up phone calls. The exciting possibilities of building a ‘new normal’ of work flexibility for our increasingly mobile, computer-intensive workforce must be accompanied by leaders understanding the new range of ergo and self-care competencies employees need to avoid pain and injury. We must consider, an increasingly mobile, ‘work from anywhere’ workforce also means decreased control over employees work environments, and less ability to support healthy, safe work behaviours.
Here’s one example of why managers should be concerned
Jean, who worked on a 1300 help-line, welcomed the opportunity to work from home. After seven years of travelling 3 hours a day for work, Jean set off with her ergonomic checklist, budget for an office chair, and visions of morning walks, yoga classes and extra time with friends. Fantastic!
Jean contacted Beyond Ergo in 2018. After just six months working from home, Jean was experiencing significant levels of pain and mounting medical bills. Weekly physio and acupuncture appointments had replaced yoga classes and beach walks due to neck, shoulder and back pain. In just six months, Jean’s shoulder needed regular Cortisone injections and surgery was planned.
Jean was emotional, exhausted and running out of money.
Explaining why staff need more than an office ergonomics checklist
Jean followed the ergonomic checklist, purchased the recommended office chair, brought the document stand from work, plugged in a mouse and checked the dimensions of her desk.
However, the ergonomic checklist had not covered the full range of issues Jean now faced in her new WFH environment, including the use of a laptop, light management or air quality. There was also no advice on positive work behaviours (e.g. stretches, movement breaks) or procedures for recording, managing or reporting any work-related pain or musculoskeletal discomfort.
This photo of Jean’s initial workstation setup reveals many obvious ergonomic issues. However, the reasons why some issues occurred was not apparent, so simple advice like ‘you should have your chair higher’ would not be sufficient support.
- Chair height set too low: The desk had drawers, limiting chair height adjustment. The ergonomic checklist only covered the desired desk height, not depth.
- Chair back not set at all: The checklist discussed the benefits of the lumbar support, but Jean needed help to understand if the chair back was adjusted correctly.
- Reference material: Two manuals were in constant use, but Jean was unaware of the injury risks associated with the continuous and exaggerated twisting and leaning needed to view manuals resting on the bed. Jean thought this action might be an excellent stretch to help her sore back.
- Laptop: As noted above, the office ergonomic checklist only covered desktop computers. While Jean knew the screen should be higher, she had no information on how to set up a laptop computer and no budget for a laptop stand or external keyboard.
This original setup forced Jean to sit with hunched shoulders, no back support, neck and upper-back constantly in flexion, right arm abducted to use the mouse, no forearm support and a repetitive and exaggerated twist and lean to the right to use reference material.
No wonder Jean was in a lot of pain!
Jean had also made the common mistake of setting up her workstation in front of a window. The view across the beach was beautiful but caused significant screen glare. This led to eye strain and headaches. Managing air quality was also an issue. With no air-conditioning and a noisy flatmate, the bedroom door was kept closed, making the room hot and stuffy.
That goes beyond ergonomics to support staff WFH or working remotely
The additional support Jean needed
After completing a workstation and workspace assessment, and reviewing the results from the physical discomfort survey we provide before each coaching session, I listened to Jean’s experiences over the last 6 months including the advice from doctors and allied health professionals and the clubs or classes she liked to attend.
From here, we built a plan.
We worked together to adjust Jean’s workstation, using the actions that personalised ergo recommendations to match her stature. We discussed the importance of resetting back to a relaxed, neutral work posture and practised the simple Roll-Reset-Relax to ensure Jean knew how this work posture felt.
We wrote a checklist as we worked through other key points, including (but not limited to),
- The need to use the blind to reduce eye strain and headaches
- The use of a fan to improve air quality
- We made a laptop stand using cardboard, ensuring the centre of the screen was approximately 17.5⁰ below eye level (i.e. approximately shoulder height) using another action to refine this recommendation to match Jean’s stature.
- I introduced Jean to a short keyboard, demonstrating the positive effect on Jean’s work posture. A long keyboard forced Jean to elevate her shoulder, stretch her arm and slightly lean to the right when mousing.
- Placing an A3 paper sheet under the keyboard and mouse would decrease headaches by stopping the flashback from the enamelled work surface. It also reduced drag on Jean’s shoulder and increased comfort when mousing.
We also discussed the importance of building movement breaks into her work pattern and practiced a range of static and dynamic stretches all designed to release tension, increase blood flow, trigger Jean to be increasingly mindful pain points and reset back to a relaxed and neutral work posture.
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Ergo & Self-Care skills are a new tier of WHS & Wellbeing training for screen-intensive work
Current office ergonomics training and workstation assessments are increasingly irrelevant, because our 21st Century, mobile, screen-intensive workforce is unique. Staff now navigate an increasing range of work options including WFH or remote work, sit-stand desks, activity-based workplaces, multiple screens, and mobile devices (including mobile phones) on the desk. These choices come with a growing range of health and safety risks, including chronic pain and illnesses associated with our increasingly sedentary work.
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are already considered the most significant negative health issues associated with the use of personal computers. With the surge of staff working from home, reports of work-related aches, pain and musculoskeletal discomfort are on the rise.
Businesses have less control over the work environment and less ability to support healthy work behaviours while needing to provide an increased range of ergonomic training for staff that includes self-care competencies and ensures training transfer into everyday work habits.
With the improved workstation setup and new dynamic stretches to release muscle tension and increase range of movement, Jean could return to yoga (with some restrictions) and restart her morning walks. However, the damage to Jean’s shoulder was significant and still needed surgery. Sadly, this is often the case by the time I am contacted and just one reason we need to expand our thinking around WHS and ergonomic interventions from reactive to preventative.
Jean was anxious about revealing her pain to her manager in case she lost a chance of promotion or even her job. This meant support was not provided to prevent permanent damage. Jean’s shoulder injury caused high mental, physical and economic costs, and changed her life dramatically. While the financial cost of an injured employee is significant, the injured person personally covers over 70% of the associated costs.
A significant MSD like Jean’s can reduce that persons earning capacity for the next 4 to 5 years.
Knowing it was going to take four to five months after surgery to return to full-time work, with a chance this injury would permanently limit her ability to work with screens, Jean faced the real possibility of having to change careers. Even returning to study was going to be hard as most courses involve a high degree of computer work. Now in her 30’s, Jean started to consider entry-level work, such as a shop assistant.
Discover a new tier of WHS & Wellbeing training
Discover a new tier of training that goes beyond generic ergonomic information on how to adjust a few core pieces of equipment. Reducing absenteeism, presenteeism, stress, and attrition needs training that builds ergo and self-care competencies, enabling staff to take greater responsibility for their health, safety and wellbeing no matter where they work. These are the new personal protective behaviours (PPB’s) for screen-intensive work that increase comfort and productivity by making recommendations easy to personalise and quick to apply no matter where they work.
That’s the Beyond Ergo training difference. We build programs that ensure employees gain knowledge and skills to make informed health and safety decisions. Programs that guarantee transfer, so self-care competencies are applied in any work or leisure situation.
- Download our FREE 17 page Moving Home Checklist – That goes beyond ergonomics to support staff WFH or working remotely
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