Ergonomics Management in Remote Working – Post COVID 19

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The future of work became a strong item in the global Occupational Health and Safety conversation in the later part of last millennium and the predictions on the new kinds of work and changes in employment patterns were projected for 2030 but little did we know we were going to have the COVID-19 pandemic which forced remote working on global working population. While lockdowns have long been lifted in almost all countries of the world, working from home seems to have become a key working pattern that has come to stay. According to the Buffer study titled “State of Remote Work”, it clearly stated that 99% of the respondents in their study said they would like to work remotely at least some of the times for the rest of their careers. And according to a BBC report also, 50 of the biggest UK employees they questioned said they have no plans of returning all employees full time to the office in the near future. And a number of organizations are also saying, they want 100% home working with no physical contact with office whatsoever.

When you align these all together in proper context, you will realise that remote working has become a legacy that the COVID-19 pandemic left with global working population. Owing to the fact that most organizations had no plan for remote working before the compulsory lockdown as a result of the pandemic, a number of employees initially struggled to get used to working from home and many are still struggling even till date. The transition was too abrupt without any opportunity for adequate education and training on Safe and Healthy Remote Working or even having the opportunity to make provision for adequate home offices. This has of left a number of workers with a whole lot of poor health outcomes that are linked to poor remote working conditions. Amongst the number of health outcomes that have become obvious as offshoots of remote working are heightened burden of metal health, increased sedentary behaviors and poor ergonomic conditions seem to become an increasing concern within global working population. From conversations we have had with a number of organizations in Nigeria, there has been several discussions and engagement with employees of mental health and sedentary behaviors but little has been done on training and awareness on how to management ergonomic conditions while employees work from home. This has led to increased burden of lower and upper back pain, neck pain, wrist and eye pain leading to increase in employees visits to hospitals. Pain management is an issue that is very delicate in handling, it is better prevented than being managed. You will also recall that many studies have linked pain to insomnia and this also has a high potential to negatively impact on employees’ productivity if not controlled.

There are still a number of struggles in understanding the true meaning of ergonomics, some people see it as just the adjustable seats and desks or workstations but the truth is, you can have these adjustable work tools and still suffer from ergonomics conditions. What indeed is ergonomics? It was coined from two Greek words in 1949 by K.F.H Murrell “ergon” meaning work and “nomo” meaning law, so invariable it is the law of work. According to the International Ergonomics Association, it as the scientific understanding of the interactions amongst human and other elements of a system. It is not the sophistication of the work tools that matter but the way they adjustably fit or compatibly align with the physical body structure of the user. Office workstations can be Occupational Hazards but even worse from home with lack of ergonomic planning.

From the interactions we have had with a number of employees from different organisations, we have realised in spite of the sudden relocation to work from home, a number of organizations who understood what this would mean to health and wellbeing of their employees, made quite some impressive provisions. Some of them allowed their employees to buy adjustable seats and desks and submit the receipts for reimbursement while others allowed employees to relocate their work desks and seats home if they so desired and this became a big cushion to potential ergonomics risks. A number of employees were left to work from makeshift workstations and desks, coffee seats, sofas, kitchen seats, beds and many others became popular as work tools in home working. This was alluded to in the recent report from BUPA which stated that over 11 million Brits are now in pain from working from home and only 32% of them have dedicated workplaces in their homes. No one knew how the long lockdown was going to last, so these misfits work tools were manageable while within acute stage but when working in those conditions became prolonged, a number of these sets of workers started reacting as ergonomics illnesses and disabilities were beginning to set in.

According to a report published by Personnel Today, 4 in 5 who started working remotely in lockdown developed some form of Musculoskeletal Disorders. The report placed low back pain at 50%, neck pain at 36%, shoulder pain at 28% of harm to employees while 46% of the employees said they have been taking painkillers more often than they would like. These are obvious outcomes indicative of poor body posture while we use the wrong sets of work tools. In the future of work, this may be a recurring issue hence the need to start addressing it from both National and Enterprise levels. Workplaces and work processes have become characterised with devices of all kinds and we must keep in mind that every new technological device comes with its own sets of risks. Most of these devices even the lap tops were not designed with ergonomics in mind, the safety and wellbeing of the users were not adequately considered. So when we use these devices, we need to keep an open mind and figure out ways we can use them in our own best interest. More than 4 billion people access the internet via smart devices, and these devices are used for both work and leisure. There is an urgent need to acknowledge that this has a high potential of making employees suffer from illnesses that did not exist two decades ago. While we continuously work with these devices, it places our bodies in awkward postures, we are most times hunching or constantly tilting our heads downwards which places an increases load on our vertebrae columns.

According to a report published by Kirsti Pedak of Tallinn University, the average human head weighs 4 – 6 kilogram, this is a load on its own and the need for right placement will improve the increased burden of upper back pain. When we tilt our heads forward by 15 degree, it increases the load we place on our vertebrae column by 13.5 kg just by that singular awkward posture and this further increases to 25 kg if we tilt our heads by 45 degrees. One of the foremost laws in Ergonomics management is proper body positioning, the way we position our necks, our heads all matter so much in the outcomes we receive. Neutral body posture is always advised and using adjustable work tools is also a very important point to note in ergonomics management in remote working.

Risk exposure is always measured by duration and frequency of exposure. While remote working has created a very blurred line between our private time and work time, it is important to keep in mind the need to take intermittent breaks. You do not need to get glued to your lap tops all day long, even while the temptation to act in that manner fully exists but the need for employees to be intentional and personalizing their health and wellbeing at remote working is very important. You need to take stretch break, get off your seat stretch out, walk around gaze at some distance for a while, this helps to relax the tensed muscles within your eyes. When we maintain bad postures through prolonged sitting, the body gets used to the wrong signals and such a posture seems normal to the body. Regaining normal posture could be increasingly difficult, as such position is deleted from our muscle memory and replaced with the new one. This increases the tensions on our back, neck and shoulder muscles and bones which in turn brings about irreversible changes in our skeletal structure. We do not need to trivialize awkward body posture or poor ergonomics conditions, they could lead to irreparable disability.

A number of employers are beginning to plot their figures and using these data to create smart interventions in their workplaces. But where do we really begin our interventions from? There is no one-style-fits-all approach to this, employers need to listen to their employees to understand the enormity of the concerns and where the risk lies. But one very clear area to begin with is Remote Work Risk Communication, we may have missed this at the point we commenced the lockdown because we were not prepared for this but this should be strong in your continuous daily communication with employees. Let’s be fair enough to hear our employees out so we can understand clear areas of support. The need to profile employees is also a very key aspect we must consider, this will help identify the employees with existing ergonomics conditions who the organization may have even catered for already by getting them seats and desk that ameliorated those concerns. We must remember, such employees have been working from home for over one year now while their seats remain unused in the office, we must consider the need to allow such employees take those seats home to set up their home offices. Continuous training on how to adjust our work tools is also very important, this could be done maybe weekly for 5 minutes during our meetings.

There is a popular concept for ergonomics management called “NEW”, the acronym helps employees to remember how exactly to use the concept.

N –neutral Posture: It is expected that this posture is maintained while sitting or standing. It keeps the pelvic out of awkward positioning and keeps pains away.

E –ye and Elbow Height: Whatever type of desks or seats in use, ensure the keyboard (ASDF home row) are well positioned within the elbow level while the top of monitor should be at or slightly below the eye level. This prevents tilting of head or hunching over the monitor which are great sources of body pain.

W-ork Area: Creating both primary and secondary work zones. The areas within your table where your hands can reach without difficulties are your primary areas and the materials frequently used should be kept within those areas. Secondary work zone are areas within the outstretched arms, materials not frequently used can be placed in such areas.

While a number of employees may have the luxury of having decent ergonomics seats for work at home, there is also a great need for employees to improvise by creating lasting ergonomics comfort with their existing seats. Placing a thin pillow on your seat can make an ordinary chair much more comfortable with the pillow offering lumber support to the spine. There are a lot of household items that can be used for work comfort, putting a firm cushion or a tightly folded towel under your buttocks will raise your hips and increase the curve of your spine making sitting more comfortable.

The 20:20:20 rule is also very good for control of eye strain. Learn to take micro breaks of 20 seconds in every 20 minutes and stare at things that are at least 20 feet away. This helps reduce the tension within the eye muscles. The need to take intermittent “stretch breaks” within work is crucial, you use this to create changes in body postures and also stretch out. You need to incorporate this into your daily work plan and where possible, set reminders on your phones. Placing your printer in another room entirely is also helpful, this makes you to leave the seat for micro breaks each time you send a document for printing.

We must learn to place our work equipment properly in improving awkward body positioning and one of such critical tip is ensuring monitors are places 20 – 40 inches (above and arm’s length) away from the eyes. The monitor’s distance should be about 20 inches away when using small screens and even further away as the screen size gets larger. A lap top stand is very useful in proper monitor alignment. If the feet are not rested properly on the floor once the seat’s height has been properly adjusted, you may also need a foot rest to allow your hip bone sit properly and this will help avoid the pain that will come from this part of the body. If you have no foot rest readily available, you can always improvise by placing cartons, hips of books or stack of clothes under your feet.

There are other smart prevention exercises that also help. These include:

Eye rolling and eye rest: Close your eyes and roll your eyes clockwise all the ways round for three times and you repeat the same process anti clockwise for another three times. Just like the 20:20:20 rule, this helps in the release of the tensed muscles in the eyes.

Warm-up: You drop your head gently to your chest while breathing in and slowly roll your head up to your left shoulder, then while breathing out slowly, roll your head back to center. You repeat this to the right and three times on each side with do. This helps relax the tensed muscles within your neck and aids flexibility in movement of the head.

Head tilt: Maintain a neutral position and tuck in your chin, slowly tip your head to the left hand then return to the centre, then tip to your right and return to the vents. This should be repeated three times on each side.

Head turn: In a neutral position, slowly turn your head and look over your left shoulder, hold for a few seconds, go back to the center and then repeat to the right. You can repeat this three times in each side.

In doing these, it gives you another opportunity for micro breaks and helps release tensions from those parts of your body as necks, shoulder, eyes, back and many others where you have heavy burden of ergonomic related conditions.

Work life is only for a season but your life must continue even after work, while we are all busy in our different job roles today, let’s always keep in mind that whatsoever wrong use we subject our bodies to, there all always consequences that lay ahead of those behaviors. Cumulative effects of our poor ergonomics behaviors should be duly considered while the toll of remote working continues, we must continue on ergonomics education on remote working and organisations must endeavour to offer all needed administrative support in ensuring employees remain well and productive.

Written By: Ehi Iden

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