Could work-related chronic pain be our next big health problem?

A survey on working at home through lockdown could be foreshadowing a huge problem for our desk-based workforce.

A couple of weeks into lockdown, I started worrying. Worrying about something beyond what was happening out there. This was about what was happening at the dining table. I looked over at D. He rubbed his neck and squinted.

“What’s up?” I asked. I knew what was up. It had been barely any time at all that he’d been working from home, laptop on the table and sitting on a dining room chair. “My neck is sore,” he replied.

I tend to panic at the sign of any aches, pains or niggles after working at a computer all day, even when they’re not mine. Mine put me out of work, and I couldn’t type for months. Too much computer time can bring it all screaming back so that ice packs, hot water bottles, stretching and nightly baths are the status quo.

“It’s probably because you’re working on your laptop like this,” I said, mimicking his collapsed posture. We couldn’t afford for him to be a computer cripple too.

When work becomes a pain in the neck

Aches and pains aren’t a normal part of sitting at a computer, but how many times have you got up from a day of working feeling stiff or sore, and dismissed it?

Musculoskeletal pains as they’re known, forced 41% of us out of work last year, and it’s usually down to a few things. Repetitive tasks, staying in one position for too long, and not having your computer bits and pieces in the right place – or at all. These issues make up a huge portion of the NHS’s caseload, and accounts for the third largest NHS programme budget.

I knew we wouldn’t be the only ones thrown into a cobbled-together lockdown WFH setup. In my head I played out the mad rush of millions: laptop under one arm, hand sanitiser in the other as offices closed and the ‘stay at home’ message was being pinned to the podium. These people would end up on kitchen counters, sunk into couches and hunched over coffee tables for eight hours. My muscles seized at the thought.

The recent health effects of WFH

After just two weeks of lockdown, the Institute of Employment Studies carried out a survey looking at people’s wellbeing at home throughout Covid. When it published its results in May, it pretty much confirmed my fears. “More than half of the survey respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%), compared to their normal physical condition,” said the report. 

Lockdown has been the perfect storm for creating an onset of pain that millions might not have felt before. They’ve potentially left behind offices with good chairs, keyboards and monitors, to work in the comfort of their home – and not a desk assessment in sight. By law employers have a duty of care to keep employees working in safe environments – but how does this work when we’re not in an office?

As was the case for me, anxiety and stress can contribute to repetitive strain injuries. Both have become extremely acute for millions as we live through unprecedented events. Chronic pain (pain that lasts for three months or more) can lead to depression, which can itself increase physical symptoms. This creates a vicious cycle that I know all too well – could the same be true for millions of others a few months down the line?

Without intervention or employee awareness around keeping safe while working, things will get worse the longer this goes on. It only took a couple of months for the pain in one of my wrists to travel up to my arm and neck, and into the other arm. Seven months later my sick leave eventually led to a resignation.

Being evangelical about a good desk chair and keyboard sounds like a dull cause, but they really can save your health. If you’re on a laptop, get it propped up to eye height and plug in a keyboard and mouse. Amazon considers these items part of its limited essential lockdown items right now, so go get yours.

Helpful resources:

How to give yourself a working from home desk assessment (Health & Safety Executive)

Three stretches to tend to the aches and pains of working from home  (New York Times)

More on this topic:

Desk duty: Staying healthy through the long hours