It would have been unthinkable a year ago, but as England struggles through another national lockdown, it is clear that full-time working from home isn’t going anywhere. And it’s more important than ever that businesses invest time in making work as positive an experience as possible.
The last year has been the most tumultuous in living memory, and the necessity of looking after our mental health has never been truer. The Mental Health Foundation found that our ability to cope with the stress of the pandemic declined steadily since April, and while the most obvious route to help combat this is for individuals to take ownership, this responsibility also lies with employers. They too have an obligation to remote workers to care for not only their physical health but their mental wellbeing, too.
The sobering truth of remote working
While many of us may have been curious, or even excited, about the prospect of working from home last March, it has become increasingly challenging for the majority. And for good reason – in response to a survey by RIBA, 70% of respondents agreed that the design of their current home has affected their mental wellbeing during the pandemic. Meanwhile, 11% said spending more time in their current home has made them more stressed.
Although many find they are more productive when working from home, it is clearly not without its challenges. This is particularly the case for many of the ‘newbies’ who have been forced to become remote workers, rather than choosing to do so. For some, the lack of social interaction with colleagues can lead to feelings of isolation. For others, staying motivated can be problematic when surrounded by so many distractions in the home environment.
And it’s not just our mental wellbeing that’s suffering. With many of us spending long hours working on unsuitable kitchen chair, squashy sofas or hunched over coffee tables, our physical health is increasingly affected too. In particular, research suggests we are seeing a surge in musculoskeletal conditions, something that can severely affect both physical and mental health.
Last May, research undertaken by health insurer Bupa revealed that nearly two-thirds (63%) of staff had injured their back, neck, hips, knees or wrists as a result of poor homeworking practices and a lack of suitable equipment. And by September, a nationwide survey by charity Versus Arthritis revealed that a staggering 81% of desk workers who switched to working from home have since had back, neck or shoulder pain. Alarmingly, 46% of those reported taking more painkillers than they would like.
Now, nearly a year since our lives seismically changed, are we facing the potential for a musculoskeletal crisis? In addition to the physical and economical cost, do we risk piling additional pressure on our already overwhelmingly stretched health services?
Getting it right
For employers, the most important practical support they can offer is to help their teams utilise their desktops, laptops and furniture safely and appropriately. Not every firm can afford to deliver ergonomic chairs or second screens to their workforce, but with a little advice they can help employees adapt their environment, protecting their health in the process. Here are some guidelines…
- The monitor – The ideal height for a computer monitor on the desk or work surface should be at – or slightly below – eye level so you look slightly downward when viewing the middle of the screen. Additionally, the monitor should be positioned at least 20 inches (51 cm) from the eyes – about an arm’s length distance. If the screen is larger, add more viewing distance, which helps prevent eye strain.Adjusting the screen position will also help control screen glare. Don’t forget to tilt the monitor back 10° to 20° to maintain the distance between screen-scanning eyes and the screen. All this can be done using a stand or arm for the monitor. The same principles apply for laptop computer screens, which can be raised using a laptop stand that positions the monitor at the right height and allows comfortable typing with the use of a separate keyboard.
- The chair – Having an optimally positioned monitor will not help if the user is not sitting comfortably. Where possible, employers should ensure staff can use a comfortable, adjustable chair, so they can make changes as they shift posture. The chair should be able to allow feet to sit flat on the floor and the backrest should also be able to tilt and include strong lumbar support to avoid straining the structure of the lower spine.
- The keyboard – The ideal keyboard height is even with the height of the elbows, tilted back by 10° so that the wrists stay flat, reducing the potential for muscle strain. Sometimes employees might find their standard workstation is often too high for proper ergonomic positioning of the desk. If that’s the case, try an adjustable keyboard tray that extends below the worksurface.
- Flexibility – We are not designed to stay sedentary for long periods, so even if the workstation is set up the right way, it’s important to try and move every 30 minutes if possible. This might just be standing and stretching the back and arms , but frequent short walks are of huge benefit too – one study found that 10 minutes of walking or other types of exercise releases endorphins, which can positively impact mental health. Using a standing desk is another way to introduce movement to the workstation – most are height-adjustable and can move up and down as the user fluxes between sitting and standing.
The road to recovery
Although it may feel hard to believe right now, this situation we all find ourselves in is not everlasting. Employers should strive to keep this message clear when communicating with staff who are feeling stressed or anxious about the present and future. While we all tackle the challenges of the ongoing pandemic together, organisations should support workers with a safe and comfortable working environment to boost employee morale and mental health. Doing so will not only reap rewards for now but will have a greater return on investment into the future.
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