Has homeworking caused a surge in musculoskeletal conditions?

Employment & Skills | Healthcare | Reports

With home-working now commonplace, UK workers have taken to working at dining rooms tables and home offices across the country, but what impact is this having on their physical health?

Health and safety consultancy, Arinite, has compared research from 2019 and 2020 to determine whether UK workers received enough support from their employers to cope with the physical change in their day-to-day work environment.

What are musculoskeletal disorders?
Musculoskeletal disorders can affect muscles, bones, and joints. Desk jobs are common causes of these conditions, which can cause recurrent pain, swelling, aches, and stiff joints.

When severe, the discomfort experienced can interfere with everyday activities such as typing. Maintaining a healthy posture while working is vital for preventing these symptoms.

How much have work-related cases increased?
In 2019, only 1.42% of workers experienced work-related musculoskeletal disorders. This low statistic may be because only 5.1% of the total UK workforce were mainly working in their own home. Whereas in 2020, many of us had no choice but to do so. According to ONS, 46.6% of British employees did some work at home during lockdown. As a result, last year saw an astronomical 37.70% of musculoskeletal cases connected to work.

Keyboard work is the third most significant cause of aches and pains.
Even before the rise of remote working, keyboard work was cited as the third biggest work-related cause of musculoskeletal conditions, overtaking heavy machine operation. This risk was heightened further by workers operating from unsuitable at-home workstations.

In September 2020, a survey revealed that 81% of employees working remotely during lockdown had experienced back, neck, or shoulder pain.

Nearly a quarter of respondents were affected by these symptoms often or all the time. Another 46% were taking more painkillers than they would like to reduce these aches and pains.

Do homeworkers have a suitable workspace?
In the Homeworking Impact Code, just over 28% of UK employees admitted to operating from a non-work specific home location. Working from an inappropriate and unprofessional set-up such as slouching over a dining table, can cause neck, back, and hip pain.

Although 41.2% of respondents used a dedicated workroom or office, many aches and pains can still occur without putting the necessary precautions in place.

How are employers helping?
Without prior knowledge that working from home would become the norm, those without a home office didn’t have much time to prepare. But is it the employee’s or employer’s responsibility to ensure at-home workspaces are appropriate?

More than a third of office workers claimed they hadn’t received any support, advice, or equipment from their employer to assist with homeworking during lockdown. A staggering 89% of people who are temporarily working from home and are in pain hadn’t told their employers.

Although the law doesn’t require employers to conduct home workstation assessments for employees working from home temporarily, they should still offer advice.

According to HSE, if the temporary homeworking period extends, employers should hold regular discussions with workers to address whether improvements need making and deliver equipment if necessary.

What if homeworking becomes permanent?
Although the government’s advice for people to work from home where possible is likely to end, it’s unclear when that will be. Companies may also decide to continue offering homeworking to employees as a benefit, as 39% of Brits want to sometimes work from home after lockdown.

To aid permanent homeworkers, employers must provide information on how to operate comfortably to avoid developing musculoskeletal conditions. Regularly communicating with staff members will help to prevent any long-term issues occurring too.

On top of this, employers must instruct staff to complete a homeworking risk assessment and a display screen equipment assessment. The health and safety policy may also need adjusting to cover homeworking.

Robert Winsloe, Managing Director at Arinite, says: “Creating a suitable at-home work environment is crucial to preventing employees developing physical issues that can have long-term implications.

“Although not everyone has a home office, there are always adjustments you can make or adaptations you can add to equipment to create a more supportive set-up.

“Even if workers have a dedicated workspace, it doesn’t mean they’re informed of how to operate in a way that protects themselves from aches and pains.

“With homeworking likely to continue into the future, employers should consider how to care for their remote staff’s wellbeing as part of their health and safety practices.

“Putting precautions in place will prepare businesses for the possibility of remote working remaining commonplace.”

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