At first, everybody was fine working remotely, says Melissa Afterman, an ergonomics consultant and environmental health and safety specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. But after about three months, she says, “I started getting a lot of phone calls.”
Since Covid-19 sent droves of office workers home, doctors and workplace safety experts have called attention to the risk of work-related injuries and health problems, from back pain to tooth fractures. Even as many remote employees have settled into a routine, it was only a matter of time before months of hunching over laptops–combined with the stress of living through a pandemic–started to take a toll on their health.
Forty-one percent of Americans have had new or increased back, neck, or shoulder pain since they began working from home, according to a survey commissioned by insurance company Chubb in May and June. And in a separate June survey of remote workers from digital health company Hinge Health, 45 percent reported back and joint pain–with 71 percent saying the pain was new or had worsened.
While being desk-bound in a traditional office can cause “micro-damage” to the body over time, Afterman says long periods of working in awkward positions–propped up in bed or perched at the kitchen counter, for instance–can heighten problems, leading to pain or even long-term damage.
Many ailments can be traced to extended laptop use, Afterman says. When the computer screen and keyboard are attached, the user has to look down at the screen, and the weight of the head pulls on the neck and back. Meanwhile, using a trackpad rather than a separate mouse can cause wrist pain.
These problems can be treated, and an ergonomic workstation and behavioral changes can resolve most of the causes, Afterman says. But how do you communicate this to a full workforce? Here’s some advice:
1. Lead by example and give frequent reminders.
While you can’t force employees to swap out their loveseat for a desk chair, you can remind them that an unsupportive chair can contribute to back pain, Afterman says. Other helpful reminders: Place the top of the computer screen at eye level, use a separate keyboard and mouse at elbow level, sit with feet planted on the floor or on a footrest, and change positions throughout the day. Don’t be afraid to check in regularly on employees’ work-at-home ergonomics and be sure to lead by example, Afterman adds.
2. Revise remote-work policies to include ergonomics.
Provide company-wide training sessions, as well as resources like self-assessment checklists or even one-on-one virtual appointments with an ergonomist, to help employees set up proper workstations and learn healthy habits.
3. Offer to foot the bill.
And since investing in employees’ health can actually be cheaper in the long run–as fewer sick employees can temper health insurance costs–it might behoove you to fund some home-office updates, particularly if you’re thinking of keeping your company remote indefinitely. Of course, notes Afterman, stipends for home-office equipment aren’t all that helpful if employees don’t know what to buy. She suggests soliciting expert recommendations.
4. Don’t ignore mental strain.
With new or enhanced caregiving responsibilities, feelings of isolation, and the attendant concerns of a global pandemic and a tense political climate, remote employees may need a little mental TLC, too. PeopleG2, a background-check company in Brea, California, that’s been fully remote since 2009, has seen new issues arise as a result of the pandemic, according to founder and CEO Chris Dyer. People who live alone or with only a partner tended to feel overworked and isolated, and were inclined toward unhealthy behaviors like drinking too much, he says; they were encouraged to join book clubs and virtual social gatherings, and some needed professional mental health care.
5. Invite people to tell you what they need.
PeopleG2 employees with children and other family members at home struggled with distractions, sleep deprivation, and stress-induced teeth grinding. They needed more flexible schedules and coaching on balancing work with child care, as well as extra home-office equipment. “Our best people took a deep breath, asked for help, and made the adjustments to their life, schedules, and working space to make it work,” Dyer says.