Working From Home Injuries & Ergonomics | Think Ergonomics Katrina James

Delight or Disorder: Working from Home Due to the COVID Crisis

25 Sep 2020 Katrina James

Office-based professionals have dreamt of working from home. A sea-change or tree-change with no long commute. No value-less meetings or conversations with well-meaning colleagues. Many have wanted an office reprieve for one or two days a week ’to get things done’.

Rewind to March 2020 and the official beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic in Australia. Many office workers found themselves at home at last – but in a pandemic. It is a crisis situation, not quite the dream. Home schooling kids, a share house with flatmates or a tiny apartment with noisy neighbours. It’s not the tree-change they dreamt of.

Humans are flexible and adaptable, particularly when there is a call to arms during a crisis. But adaptability and make-do eventually cause injuries.

I’m an ergonomist who consults to a diversity of workplaces. I help blue-collar workers injured from shear physical labour. I also helped white collar workers. They present with the opposite situation, suffering muscle injuries from not moving enough. The office worker’s injuries come from sitting still and repetitive use of devices.

Phones, laptops and desktop computers may not be thought of as machines, but they are. Office workers are not thought of as machine operators, but they are. Your device use will cause injuries via continuous activity, repetitive small movements and unchanged posture. If you are using these devices for many hours each day, without frequent breaks and diversity of movement, you will injure your body.

When a body is seated and crouched, blood flow is constricted and muscles contract. And when concentrating, there is tendency to breathe less deeply and move less overall.

Check how you are positioned right now, while reading this article. You may already be a candidate for injury.

The onset of discomfort and muscular pain can be slow and insidious. The result is stiff, tired and painful muscles. I have supported people whose psychological drive to complete work overtook their pain receptors. They ended up with aches and pains but weren’t sure why. Nobody expects to be badly injured by sitting still. I call these injuries ‘stillness disorders’.

During online meetings, I see people working with laptops on coffee tables, kitchen benches and lounges. Just because they are called laptops, does not mean the lap is the best place to use them. The worst-case scenarios are those using smart phones while working in bed. It’s enough to make us want to return to the office and stop to chat with a colleague in the hallway.

If you or your staff are working from home, you need to start paying attention to these issues. Anything less may be negligent.

A situation created for temporary purposes develops problems months or years later. Right now, millions of Australians are heading for slow and insidious muscular discomfort and pain.

Employees may report injuries when the pandemic allows their return. If they are in pain or overly stressed and require treatment, their productivity will suffer. By the time an employee reports pain or stress, the problem can be difficult to manage and may take many months to resolve. It is costly.

An office set up needs to fit the person, not force someone to fit into what is immediately available. I liken it to squeezing your body into a pair of pants a size too small and then eating a large pizza. Sooner or later, the top button will pop. Some businesses have used expert advice and guided employees to design good working spaces at home. Unfortunately most home-based workers are winging it.

Right now, employees need support and guidance to make their home office arrangements a priority. Employers risk another business crisis unless they tend to those working from home.

I am helping businesses to take responsibility and develop strategies to avoid a ‘stillness disorder’.

If you are a business manager with employees working at home, Think Ergonomics can support you and your team. We have been working with employees who use devices for twenty years. Ergonomists know the science to support people working in different physical situations. No matter what happens, you want your team to be cared for, supported and physically well.

Katrina James