How to Avoid Work From Home Injury: Top Ergonomic Standards to Emulate
During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in 2020, it seemed clear that the end of the crisis would not necessarily return all phases of life back to what they had been before.
One area where that’s holding true is in the growing phenomenon of remote work, which became commonplace last year as most businesses, organizations and agencies were forced to close their physical locations and send employees home.
At the height of the pandemic, it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds — more than 60% — of workers in the United States did their jobs primarily from home.
That seismic shift has largely held course.
Though businesses have reopened and many employers have invited their workforces to come back into the office, American workers seem apprehensive about returning to fully in-person schedules.
Global Workforce Analytics estimates that between 25-30% of workers will work from home more than one day per week by the end of 2021, up from a rate of 3.6% just three years ago.
Those numbers square with Gallup research suggesting three out of five workers would prefer to continue remote work as much as possible after public health restrictions come to an end.
Employers are listening.
Companies big and small are creating new policies that allow employees to work some, if not all, of their time at home or remotely — Nationwide was the first to announce a major shift to permanent remote work, and others such as Twitter, Square, Facebook, Shopify, Slack, Zillow, Verizon, Google, Apple and Microsoft followed suit with announcements of their own.
This evolution has profound implications for those of us in the business of worker safety.
Remote work and work-from-home are here to stay, and it will be up to safety and HR leaders to come up with solutions that support employee wellness from a distance.
Remote work comes with its own ergonomic challenges, and employees working from home aren’t immune to the risk factors that affected them before the switch.
What Are the Primary Risks to Remote Workers?
Remote and home-based workers face similar ergonomic injury risks to their counterparts in the office, but new hazards inevitably appear in home or at remote workspaces that haven’t been arranged to ergonomic standards.
Generally, the wellness factors affecting WFH or remote employees fall into two categories:
Physical risks, which include ergonomic injuries resulting from problems with posture, body mechanics or equipment setup.
The health risks associated with sitting for long periods of time have been well documented in recent years, including increased risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Back, shoulder, neck and wrist injuries are common among desktop employees, including repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
During the pandemic at the height of COVID-related work-from-home, rates of rotator cuff injuries increased, as did reports of eye strain, pinched nerves and disc pain.
Those are costly injuries, running up to $40,000 per claim or even higher, and they can keep an employee from their job for weeks.
The other category might be called mental risks. These are the less tangible factors that can result from continuous remote or at-home work.
Research from Buffer reports that 22% of remote workers struggle to unplug at the end of their shift, while 19% experience loneliness and 17% experience problems communicating with their colleagues.
Workers at home may have difficulty keeping work and home life separate, which can contribute to burnout.
All of these factors can diminish productivity and hurt employees’ ability to focus.
These categories often overlap, as well. For instance, an at-home worker who is experiencing chronic back pain from looking down at their laptop would also be more likely to show signs of depression.
The Top Wellness Solutions for WFH and Remote Workers
For employers looking to curb rates of ergonomic injuries and chronic pain that can lead to high costs and loss of focus and productivity, a few solutions stand out as keys to unlocking a holistic program of worker wellness.
The Total Worker Health framework proposed by the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) lays out a strong case for a wide-angle approach to employee safety.
1) Empower Employees with Self-Care Training
Often, the best approach involves giving workers the tools they need to take charge of their health and wellness.
During the pandemic, some organizations implemented virtual services that connect WFH or remote employees with experienced providers who can teach employees how to care for their aches and pains before they become injuries.
These providers can be massage therapists or other pain-relief specialists who can provide resources for employees to help improve their fitness, reduce pain levels and maintain overall wellness.
2) Provide Real-Time Ergonomic Support with Desktop Software
Software installed on employees’ work computers can help safety leaders reinforce best practices and healthy habits among remote workers.
These applications can provide reminders for employees to stand up and walk around, which can also help relieve eye strain.
Some will also help employees evaluate their home or remote workspace and make ergonomic adjustments that target their specific areas of discomfort.
3) Help Employees Create Ergonomically Safe Workspaces
Employers can also help supply employees with the equipment they need to work safely.
Tools such as standing or variable-height desks can help keep workers’ bodies limber, or barring that, laptop stands that elevate screens to eye level.
As is the case in the office, high-quality seating will also help mitigate ergonomic risks. Live virtual ergonomic assessments for office workspaces can also offer direct fixes at a fraction of the cost of purchasing new equipment.
4) Encourage Employees to Stay Fit
Many employers create fitness incentives for their workforces, and these can and should apply to remote workers as well.
Options include smoking cessation programs and specific tasks — such as walking a mile, committing to healthy meals, and drinking enough water for the day — which can be attached to rewards that incentivize participation.
Smartphone apps can also offer a way for employees to practice mobility and fitness on their schedule.
All of these solutions contribute to a holistic approach to worker wellness, one that accommodates the natural changes that occur when employees start spending more of their days at home.
Remote work is sure to become the norm for many workers, and even though they’re out of sight, they still face injury risks and other challenges that can hamper their performance at work.
With the right mindset from management and ongoing support from safety leaders, employees will have all the tools they need to look after their health and safety — and you reap the benefits. &