- More people are working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While avoiding the office and staying socially distant is crucial to stopping the spread of the virus, working from home can bring about other health concerns.
- A recent study found that 41.2% of at-home workers report low back pain and 23.5% experience neck pain.
- Experts say that many of these health issues can be prevented or alleviated by taking simple measures to improve your work-from-home environment.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people around the world are working remotely. While the measure has been critical to helping control the spread of the virus, it hasn’t come without compromise. As the number of people working from home has increased, health care providers have seen a rise in work-related injuries that are unique to the home environment.
That said, experts are hoping to reassure the remote workforce that many of these problems can be prevented or alleviated by taking simple steps to improve your at-home workspace.
A small study conducted by researchers in Italy has provided early insight into the potential impact that the increase in working from home amid the COVID-19 could have.1
The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, surveyed 51 at-home workers in Italy. The results showed that 41.2% of at-home workers reported low back pain, while 23.5% reported neck pain. About half of the respondents said that their neck pain (50%) had gotten worse since they started working from home.
While the study was small and limited in scope, it asks some important questions for employees who are trying to minimize the physical and emotional toll of their new work life. The good news is, there are some practical solutions that most workers can benefit from.
What This Means For You
If you’re working from home, there are a few proactive steps you can take to help protect your physical and mental wellbeing. Take frequent breaks (set a reminder alarm if you need to), try to reduce your screen time when you can, get regular exercise, avoid eating at your desk or workspace, and stick to defined working hours.
When you aren’t working, look for safe and socially distant ways to connect with others. If you notice any new or worsening health issues, be sure to talk to your provider.
The Importance of Ergonomics
Musculoskeletal pain from a not-quite-right desk set-up, unsupportive chair, or just long hours sitting down is a common problem among workers—both in an office setting and at home.
Meredith Christiansen, DPT, PhD, specializes in ergonomics at Fern Health, where she is a clinical scientist for the at-home musculoskeletal pain care program.
Christiansen recommends placing your computer monitor about arms’ length away and keeping your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle. It also helps to avoid sitting on the couch or in bed for prolonged periods.
While proper ergonomic alignment matters, Christiansen tells Verywell that it’s even more important to get up and move or change positions every hour of your workday. For example, try alternating between sitting at the dining room table and standing at the kitchen counter (which could serve as a standing desk).
If you’re still uncomfortable, don’t ignore it. “If you are in pain, it’s important to get it managed right away, so it doesn’t become a more chronic issue,” Christiansen says.
After hours at your computer, you’ve probably felt your vision going a little blurry or even developed a slight headache. Eye strain is a common complaint, but one that is on the rise in remote workers.
Danielle Richardson, OD, optometrist, a consultant for Johnson & Johnson Vision, and the founder of Fierce Clarity (a holistic lifestyle and wellness company), tells Verywell that sustained focus on screens is the main reason people working at home experience increased eye strain.
“There are eye muscles that contract when we look up close, and when we look away they relax,” Richardson says. “Everything we are doing is on a screen right now, and so there are fewer visual breaks. Meetings are happening via Zoom, people are sending emails instead of speaking to co-workers, and eating lunch in front of the screen.”
Richardson recommends adjusting the angle of your computer screen to be 15 to 20 degrees below the horizontal eye level.
Another contributor to eye strain is the “blue light” emitted from screens, which can disrupt vision. “Blue light focuses in front of the retina, so the eye has to work harder to focus on the screen with that wavelength,” Richardson says. “Wearing glasses that filter out the blue light will make digital devices more comfortable.
Richardson recommends following the 20-20-20 Rule: Every 20 minutes, take a screen break and focus on an object that’s 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds.
Getting up and moving can also help. “I encourage my patients to go for a walk, or have a cup of coffee or tea and look outside,” Richardson says.
Glasses and Contact Lenses
If you try making these changes but eye strain and headaches persist, it might be time to make an appointment with an optometrist to see if glasses would help.
“We are prescribing a lot more ‘computer glasses,’ prescription glasses specifically to relax the muscles while they look at the computer screen,” Richardson says. “Even that little bit of extra work can trigger migraines.”
If you prefer to contact lenses to glasses, she says “daily disposable contact lenses are thinner and more breathable than monthly or two-week lenses. We’ve been switching a lot of patients to make them more comfortable.”
If you decide to go the contact lens route, Richardson recommends using a hydrogen peroxide-based contact lens cleaning solution to prevent the build-up of debris.
Richardson also recommends using a lubricant for dry eyes. “Whenever you are doing sustained near work you blink less, so I recommend over the counter artificial tears.”
Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, is currently researching the mental health effects of working from home.
Khubchandani has identified several commonalities among those who work from home and have increased health risks. “American homes were not designed to be offices,” Khubchandani tells Verywell. “Indoor environmental parameters are not well examined in the home office setting.” Khubchandani’s study shows how a poor indoor environment can lead to headaches and pain disorders.
“More people are working a greater number of hours, and there are no office time boundaries,” he says. “The lack of scheduled work times will take away from leisure time and as is, people are socializing less and there is lesser human contact, which is a big risk for mental health issues.”
In addition to the effects on mental health, isolation and a sedentary lifestyle also contribute to weight gain and obesity. In some cases, a lack of workplace-related health services might allow preexisting health issues to get worse, and preventative care could suffer as well.
On the upside, some participants in Khubchandani’s study reported better health since they began working remotely. “Some individuals are now less likely to skip meals, fast, or eat unhealthy due to having more control over their lives, such as saved commute time.”
Beyond physical health, the benefits of being at home more can extend to emotional wellbeing and even productivity. “More opportunities to stay with children and family means greater cooking at home as well and improved diet and sleep and social bonding for some,” Khubchandani says. “Studies have shown greater productivity in remote work, another health benefiting impact for some workers.”
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