Regardless of how quickly COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out, the new prevalence of the home office is largely here to stay.
That’s the emerging view shared by Sue Hanel of Ergo-Safety, the Ottawa-based workspace ergonomics consultancy that Hanel founded in 1992.
“When office buildings open again,” Hanel muses, “I suspect that about a quarter of employees will be happy to return, another quarter will want to continue working from home, and the remaining 50 per cent will prefer some kind of hybrid approach.”
Of course any sustained shift to more home offices will include benefits and drawbacks. Because Hanel is a Canadian certified professional ergonomist and registered kinesiologist who can delve into 30 years experience in the workplace environment, she can also see how all those people working from home – now and in the future – are exposing themselves to ergonomic risks.
“People working on their dining room tables, on a dining room chair, gazing downward at their laptops are kidding themselves if they think it won’t lead to problems,” warns Hanel.
“There’s a segment of home office workers that is well set up and comfortable, but a large percentage is neither set up properly nor comfortable,” she adds. Those misaligned home office setups can lead to a host of physical and psychological ailments, including repetitive strain and other musculoskeletal issues and in some cases the recently appearing ailment commonly known as Zoom fatigue.
Making temporary setups permanent
Hanel likes to call Ergo-Safety “a small company doing big things” because office ergonomics affects well being for such a wide swath of both the public and the business communities. Not surprisingly, virtual home office assessments have become an in-demand service for the company.
Hanel feels many of the flawed pandemic home office setups can be attributed to how hastily they were fashioned and how most people assumed that the setups would be quite temporary.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when nobody really knew how long we’d need to work from home,” says Hanel, “most people just grabbed their laptops and ran. If they were smart, they also grabbed their chair, monitor, keyboard and mouse.”
While some workers did take advantage of opportunities to go back for their office workstation equipment or have it shipped to them, many did not and are still working exclusively on a laptop, which Hanel points to as the second-most problematic home office risk next to sitting on an ill-fitting and rigid chair.
Because most people consistently gaze downward at their laptop screens, neck pain is a frequent result.
The downward flexion of the neck puts a lot of stress on the cervical spine, causing tension that can also radiate down to the hands if there’s a pinched nerve, says Hanel.
If that happens, “You can feel the tingling in the fingers and possibly a numb sensation,” she explains.
Related ailments may include wrist and elbow issues stemming from poor positioning of the keyboard and mouse, says Hanel.
Good ergonomics is about much more than a sleek-looking adjustable chair, but Hanel points out how working in an appropriate chair is the most important element in a home office setup.
“The No. 1 issue we’re finding is that people are working in chairs without height adjustment and poor lumbar support,” says Hanel.
“If you don’t have an adjustable chair and you’re working on a kitchen or dining room table, you’re at the mercy of the height of the table,” says Hanel, noting that the inability to raise your chair so that the armrests match the height of the desk is a big risk and a common problem with home setups. “As a result, most people are working with arms raised at an unnatural height and angle.”
Why should employers care?
Fortunately, employees working from home are not always left to their own devices. Chief among the reasons why employers should and do help improve home office ergonomics for employees, says Hanel, “is that it’s simply good for business.
“A good ergonomic home setup will enable employees to be more productive, more comfortable, feel more cared about, and less at risk of injury and resulting absenteeism,” she points out.
Hanel has noticed that an increasing number of advertised employment opportunities now include assurances that remote workers will be furnished with ergonomic setups.
“It’s now a selling feature from an employer to look after your home office ergonomics,” explains Hanel.
On another front, maintaining healthy ergonomics may in fact be a legal requirement for employers. Both the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Canada Labour Code mention that employers are responsible for the physical comfort of their employees. Terms such as “ergonomics” and “musculoskeletal” are included in the legislation.
“So, in addition to it simply being the right thing to do, there is some legal onus on employers to look after these kinds of employee needs, even for employees working from home,” Hanel points out.
Home office assessments have gone virtual
Ergo-Safety offers detailed evaluations of home office setups by registered kinesiologists without the need for a physical visit. Through an efficient process that involves a questionnaire, photograph analysis and a 30-minute video call, virtual assessments result in a detailed report (in either official language) that includes suggestions for improved setup and examples of recommended equipment.
It’s also important to note that some employee health benefits plans cover the cost of home office ergonomic assessments that are performed by a registered kinesiologist.
Visit ergo-safety.ca for details or to schedule an assessment.