Homeworkers are risking back pain, migraines, sciatica and RSI by creating makeshift workstations from domestic appliances like ironing boards, sofa armrests and rickety garden furniture.
That’s the finding of one of the country’s leading health ergonomists and back-injury-prevention experts, who has conducted hundreds of home workstation assessments since lockdown began on March 23.
Nichola Adams normally tours top British companies’ offices around the country advising them on how they can minimise the risk of back injury in the workforce.
Now, as the Coronavirus pandemic starts to ease, she says businesses and employees face major challenges in transitioning back to life in the office.
Due to the challenges of ensuring a safe workplace, many people she’s consulted fear a second virus wave and predict a return to work in September at the earliest, or even January 2021, so the transition between lockdown and normality will be lengthy.
As a Technical Member of The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF), Nichola Adams (pictured below) has advised more than 3,000 individuals and hundreds of companies over the past 14 years. Her area of expertise, ergonomics – derived from the Greek words ‘ergon’, meaning ‘work’, and ‘nomoi’, meaning ‘natural laws’ – is the science of making products and tasks comfortable and efficient for human use (through the application of biomechanics, anthropometrics and psychology).
Also a member of The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics, she runs her own consultancy Inspired Ergonomics (inspiredergonomics.com) advising the corporate sector. Here, she offers employers and employees her 10 Transition Tips on How to Ease Out Of Lockdown:
1 TIP ONE: CONSIDER DITCHING ‘HOT-DESKING’
It’s going to be essential when we return to the office to implement a new ‘single-desk-per-day’ regime, and to clean work surfaces, like desks, chairs, monitors, keyboards and mice, at the end of every individual worker’s shift. So, this does sound a death knell for the widespread cost-saving practice of ‘hot-desking’. If workers are nervous about continuing to hot-desk, you’ll need to respect their concerns.
2 TIP TWO: DOWNSIZE TO LOWER CAPACITY
Because of the continuing rules on social distancing, companies with, say, 100 staff, will now only have capacity for 20-40 employees in the office at any one time. Businesses should plan ahead for this lower capacity. The need to radically reduce the amount of people in the office has already prompted many companies to rotate staff by day or by the week, to widen the spread between teams. A mix of homeworking and office shifts looks likely for the foreseeable future.
3 TIP THREE: GET BUSY SCREENING & CLEANING
Screens or barriers may be needed around desks. Pods or self-contained units for workers will have partitions on all sides of the desk to stop the virus spreading when we cough and breathe. Covid-19 lingers longest on plastic, so the more porous your partition fabric, the more the virus is absorbed, meaning there’s less likelihood of transference. Workstations should be cleansed after every shift, also chairs, tables, monitors and office break-out furniture as the virus lands on many surfaces. If used, reception sofas should be cleaned after each arriving guest.
4 TIP FOUR: INCREASE SUPPORT FOR YOUR WORKFORCE
A new Institute for Employment Studies (IES) survey of 500 homeworkers, found 75% said their employer had not carried out a health and safety risk assessment of their homeworking arrangements in lockdown. People are confused, need help, guidance and want to feel safe. Good advice is scarce. I recommend employers host health and wellbeing workshops, support employees’ mental health, and conduct fresh office ergonomic workstation assessments, which they’re legally obliged to if workstations move. Some staff may feel keen to return to the office, others nervous. Talk to individuals about their concerns.
5 TIP FIVE: DOUBLE EMPLOYEE ALLOWANCES
Musculoskeletal issues like back pain and injuries, and neck and upper-limb problems, cost UK plc nearly 7 million working days a year. Part of the problem of homeworking is few people have the right equipment to work comfortably in the long term. In lockdown, many companies are offering homeworkers an allowance (average budget from £150) to buy work furniture. But with rough costs, (chair £100-£150), (table £60-£90), (keyboard £40), (mouse £20) adding up to £300, employers should double their allowance. Also, offer advice on what equipment to buy, or consider sending their office equipment home.
1 TIP ONE: BEWARE ‘MAKESHIFT’ SET-UPS AT HOME
The IES survey found, on average, a 50% increase in back-pain issues in lockdown. It’s crucial to seek advice on how to create your homeworking set-up correctly, warns Inspired Ergonomics Founder Nichola Adams. “I’ve seen makeshift workstations using ironing boards, drinks cabinets, coffee tables, bar stools, sofa armrests and old fold-up garden chairs and tables. Around 5% of people are slouching on beds. You can get away with it short-term but for longer-term homeworking, use tables and office chairs,” advises Nichola. “Adjust furniture to support a healthy posture. If there’s space, stick to tables and office chairs. Simple changes can have a huge impact.”
2 TIP TWO: THINK TOILET SEAT!
Research on germs by UK ergonomics firm BakkerElkhuizen shows there are 45,670 more bacteria on an average computer mouse than there are on the average toilet seat; 20,598 more on a keyboard than on a loo seat. Returning to your office, take your keyboard and mouse with you so any germs are your own. Leaving work, wipe clean to avoid taking office germs home. Positioning equipment incorrectly can cause shoulder and neck strains, headaches and migraines.
3 TIP THREE: SWAP HANDBAGS FOR BACKPACKS
Mrs Thatcher famously clobbered politicians with her handbag, but now heavy handbags can cause neck and shoulder injuries to women who haven’t been used to carrying them in lockdown. Out-of-condition muscles mean, to avoid injury, it’s wiser to distribute the weight of your belongings evenly using a backpack, preferably with adjustable, padded straps. As many of us may be avoiding public transport, backpacks are also ideal when cycling or walking to work.
4 TIP FOUR: WATCH YOUR BACK
Government guidelines recommend that office workers should no longer be sitting face-to-face at their desks. Instead, employees social distancing correctly are being encouraged to sit back-to-back or side-by-side, and six feet apart. This may mean desks moving position, so a fresh ergonomic workstation assessment is recommended.
5 TIP FIVE: MAKE A STAND
With companies reducing their capacity and allowing fewer employees in the office at any one time, work rooms will be less full. Provided you follow social-distancing guidelines, this new environment allows you to stand up and walk around more often, along the guided route. Take regular screen breaks, stand up and move about to help improve blood circulation, ease muscle tension build-up and prevent injury. Do this at home, too.
Nichola Adams, who has conducted hundreds of assessments remotely during lockdown, says: “A lot of businesses and employees with whom I’ve consulted now believe they may be going back to work in September or next January.
“There’s fear of a second wave and many employers are being very cautious about the health and welfare of their workforce in the office. Some tell me they’re worried they may be sued if an employee falls ill.
“With many of us facing up to another six months at home, there’s now a lot of confusion about what people should be doing, especially as there are still so many unknowns ahead.
“Homeworkers are struggling. One lady in her 20s, who works for a London law firm, was using her ironing board as a laptop desk and a rickety fold-up garden chair to sit on.
“The ironing board was too high, giving her severe neck and shoulder problems. The garden chair had a gap at the gap, so without support, she got lower-back pain – all compounded by her moving less than she normally would in the office.
“Others use dining tables that are too high, or their beds, slouching and craning their necks. One lady used her sofa arm as a mouse mat. People think they know how to set up a workstation correctly, but they need professional support and advice.”
Leading UK osteopath Gavin Burt, whose north London practice Backs & Beyond has just re-opened, said patients whose employers had arranged for their office chairs to be transported home were reporting the least back pain.
“I wasn’t expecting such a high number of patients telling me this,” he said, “but it seems that the small adaptation of having a proper office chair at home, even if only used at the dining table, has helped workers substantially reduce the amount of both neck and shoulder, and back pain that they have been suffering from since the beginning of the lockdown.”