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Hybrid work – don’t let it become a pain in the neck

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Employees working from home can be prone to problems like back pain due to poorly designed workstations and a lack of rest breaks, but digital tools like apps can help employers spot and correct the problems at an early stage.


In the ever-evolving landscape of modern work environments, the hybrid model has emerged as a promising solution, offering flexibility and efficiency for both companies and employees.

However, amid its many benefits, there lies a lurking threat to employee health: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Defined as disorders affecting the muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and other soft tissues, MSDs are prevalent among seated employees, with studies indicating an alarming rise in recent years.

Photograph: iStock/Ridofranz

The current landscape: statistics and trends

The statistics are telling:

  • The Health and Safety Executive’s Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disease in Britain Report (2022/23) reveals that over 470,000 British workers suffer from MSD symptoms they believe were caused or aggravated by work
  • An average of 13.9 working days were lost per case of work-related MSDs in Britain in 2022/23
  • The British Government allocated £400 million in the 2023 Spring Budget to address this pressing issue
  • In the United States, MSDs accounted for 31 per cent of all workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019, with seated employees bearing a disproportionately higher burden.

Understanding the Impact of MSDs

According to the United States’ Bureau of Labour Statistics, MSDs accounted for 31 per cent of all workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019 in the United States alone¹. Among seated employees, the prevalence is even higher, with estimates suggesting that up to 90 per cent of office workers experience MSD symptoms during their careers. These statistics underscore the urgent need for proactive measures to address this growing concern.

MSDs encompass a spectrum of conditions, including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and lower back pain, which not only cause physical discomfort but also contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Alarmingly, one in three MSD cases results in significant mental health implications. Moreover, the ripple effects extend to diminished productivity, increased absenteeism and elevated healthcare costs, placing a considerable strain on organisational resources.

Loneliness and social isolation, inherent in remote work environments, further compound the problem by depriving employees of social interactions and support systems. Additionally, reduced opportunities for physical exercise, coupled with the strain of online meeting fatigue, create a perfect storm for the onset of MSDs.

More direct causes of MSDs in remote and office settings can arise from incorrect positioning of equipment, poor education and training on use and positioning of equipment and, of course, prolonged sitting in static, poor postures.

Photograph: iStock/Riska

The negative impact of MSDs on employee wellbeing and productivity cannot be overstated. Beyond the physical and mental toll on individuals, there are significant financial implications for both employees and companies. The NHS in the UK spends £7 billion annually (£19 million per day) treating and supporting people with MSD issues². Increased medical costs, absenteeism, reduced productivity, staff shortages, and the added burden of recruitment and training weigh heavily on organisational resources. In 2022/23, 6.6 million working days were lost to work-related MSDs in Britain (21 per cent of all working days lost due to work-related ill health)³.

Challenges in the hybrid work environment

The transition to hybrid work presents unique challenges to employee health:

  • Prolonged sitting and continuous digital engagement contribute to poor posture and reduced physical activity.
  • Home office set-ups often lack proper ergonomics, exacerbating the risk of MSDs. Proper ergonomics relates to the inclusion of a systematic and evidence-based approach to creating the optimal workstation set-up. This is based on body type – such as height, any existing health conditions and specific needs – and this data is then used to create the ideal workstation that fits the person and not the other way around. This is known as ‘human factors’.
  • Social isolation and limited opportunities for physical action associated with traditional office-based work, such as walking to and from work, multiple use of stairs at work and on public transport while commuting, and physically moving (walking) between meetings in the physical office and at other locations outside the office, further compound the problem.

To mitigate the impact of MSDs in the hybrid work environment, companies must prioritise the development of evidence-based prevention programmes, as designed and approved by experts in ergonomics and employee physical health. This involves collaboration between HR, health and safety leaders, ergonomic healthcare professionals and employees themselves.

An educational programme tailored to the unique challenges of hybrid work can raise awareness and empower individuals to adopt healthier habits. Every single aspect of correct workstation set-up needs to be explained with education on ‘why’ this is required and then ‘how’ a great workspace is achieved using an evidence-based approach. Companies need to educate and then understand the level of employees’ understanding of that educational component.

Strategies for prevention and mitigation

To address the threat of MSDs effectively, organisations must adopt a multifaceted approach.

Access to evidence-based resources is crucial in supporting employees’ ergonomic needs. Providing proper ergonomic equipment, such as adjustable chairs and proper desks, can alleviate strain and promote better posture. Embedding online training modules on ergonomics and promoting access to online physiotherapy and ergonomics professionals for personalised guidance can further enhance the wellbeing of home and hybrid workers.

The steps to take include the following:

Investing in ergonomic resources:

  • Provide financial assistance or equipment allowances for ergonomic home office set-ups.
  • Re-evaluate and upgrade home and some office workstations where necessary to ensure proper ergonomics.

Training and technology:

  • Conduct workshops or online modules on correct workstation set-up, healthy posture practices and exercises to prevent MSDs
  • Use ergonomic assessment apps and micro-break reminders to promote healthy habits.

Fostering a culture of wellbeing:

  • Encourage open communication regarding discomfort or pain
  • Promote physical activity through virtual or in-person initiatives. Virtual mediums – such as online delivery of health classes, education and health based one-to-one reporting – are a great way to reach people who work remotely.

The importance of metrics

Metrics play a pivotal role in evaluating the effectiveness of MSD prevention programmes and guiding continuous improvement efforts.

Ed Harnett is co-founder and chief executive of Habitus Health. Photograph: Habitus Health. 

Emerging digital tools offer innovative ways to track key indicators, such as MSD incidence rates, absenteeism and employee satisfaction. Data analytics from employee reporting of health issues via an app and captured at a corporate level by a data dashboard can also provide insight into the effectiveness of the employer’s measures to prevent MSDs among home and hybrid workers. This data can be integrated with existing HR databases to track and link MSDs to cases and trends of absenteeism.

By leveraging data analytics, companies can identify areas for improvement and refine their strategies accordingly, such as improving their employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or online resources designed to prevent work-related MSDs.

A data-driven approach can:

  • Track MSD incidents and conduct regular employee surveys to assess, identify, mitigate and manage risk
  • Utilise data analytics to measure the effectiveness of the MSD prevention programme and identify areas for improvement.

Embracing innovation for MSD management

Emerging digital tools offer promising avenues for tackling MSDs in the workplace. By embracing evidence-based solutions and leveraging technology, organisations can proactively address this challenging issue, ensuring that hybrid work remains a positive force for both companies and employees.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while hybrid work presents a paradigm shift in modern work dynamics, the prevalence of MSDs underscores the importance of prioritising employee health and wellbeing.

By implementing comprehensive prevention strategies and embracing innovative solutions, organisations can create a conducive work environment that fosters productivity, health, and resilience. Let us embark on this journey together, ensuring that hybrid work remains a catalyst for success rather than a source of discomfort and risk.

With concerted efforts and strategic interventions, we can mitigate the impact of MSDs and pave the way for a healthier, more sustainable future of work.

Ed Harnett is co-founder and chief executive of Habitus Health.

For more information see:

habitushealth.net

References

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019). Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work. Retrieved from bls.gov/news.release/pdf/osh2.pdf
  2. Public Health England and NHS England Report into Musculoskeletal Health: 5 Year Strategic Framework for Prevention Across The Lifecourse, tinyurl.com/4smnwb4a
  3. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders statistics in Great Britain, 2023, HSE, hse.gov.uk/statistics/assets/docs/msd.pdf

Further reading

British Society for Rheumatology Work and Health Rheumatology Fact Sheet Medically Reviewed Healthline Article on Musculoskeletal Disorders

Punnett, L., & Wegman, D. H. (2004). Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: the epidemiologic evidence and the debate. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 14(1), 13-23.

OSHA. (n.d.). Ergonomics. Retrieved from osha.gov/ergonomics

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