Beware the hidden risks of staff working at home - Wendy Chalmers Mill

While more serious, life and death, effects of the coronavirus pandemic having dominated public attention,note-0 it has also resulted in the biggest single shift in working practices since the start of industrialisation.

Wendy Chalmers Mill is managing director of Stirling-based Positive Performance which advises companies on workplace health and wellbeing.

The switch from communal workplaces to almost everyone operating alone in atomised pods, separated from the rest of society, will be studied by social and economic historians for generations to come.

And while there have been remarkable benefits, many of which will be retained when ‘normality’ resumes, we will also come to realise that there have been some negative effects that we are only now starting to identify.

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The sudden switch to home working has seen millions of people spending all day working from laptops on dining room tables, kitchen worktops or coffee tables as their designated workspaces.

For many younger people in shared accommodation, the only option for working away from housemates has been to work from their bedrooms.

Many employers are not aware that they have a legal duty to conduct a proper risk assessment of staff working conditions, irrespective of whether their permanent place of work is at home or in an office.

As a result, they could be forced to pay millions of pounds in compensation to workers who have suffered workplace injuries.

A survey conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), a fortnight into the first national coronavirus lockdown, showed a sharp rise in workers suffering musculoskeletal complaints.

Compared with their normal physical condition, some 58 per cent reported suffering increased neck pain, while 56 per cent said they had experienced shoulder pain and 55 per cent back pain.

Another study by the STUC last month showed fewer than half of employers have followed their legal duty to conduct a risk assessment of the workstations of staff working from home.

Some of the most painful and long-lasting injuries are caused by continued, improper use of laptops which were designed to make information transportable rather than to work on for long, uninterrupted spells.

Using a laptop without a detached keyboard, which allows the screen to be move to eye level, can quickly result in back and spinal pain and injuries

People not working upright to their full spinal height inevitably slump into a banana shape. Another potential hazard is people working on chairs that don’t support their spine properly who, over time can suffer insidious back and neck problems.

Working in offices involves multi-tasking, getting up to talk to colleagues, going to the coffee machine – responding to a multitude of external stimuli that are not present in the home.

There are simple and affordable ways of resolving these issues, but many employers are not thinking about them.

They are so busy trying to keep their head above water that the idea of diverting resources to ensure their staff remain healthy and safe is, for many, an expense that they can’t afford but if they continue to ignore these issues, the cost in the long run will be much higher.

Wendy Chalmers Mill is managing director of Stirling-based Positive Performance which advises companies on workplace health and wellbeing.