Analysis: working from home has numerous benefits, but unsuitable furniture may leave workers at risk from repetitive strain injuries

By Marion McGarry, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

The impact of Covid-19 restrictions has inadvertently led to a working from home revolution which has had a huge effect on peoples' working, social and family lives. Positives include more free time, less commuting, along with money saved on fuel, childcare, and other costs associated with working. Less traffic on roads has also had a positive effect on the environment. Employers have experienced reduced costs incurred with providing office space to employees as they work from home. Contrary to what many employers expected, increased productivity has been reported, and a recent survey by Laya Healthcare found fewer sick days taken.

Aside from some workers feeling socially isolated, another downside to working from home is that being away from the highly regulated office environment has meant some of us have lapsed into poor posture habits. Anecdotal evidence suggests many are working at kitchen tables sitting on dining chairs for long periods, or even seated on sofas using laptops. It is worth considering the impact that working from home potentially has on our postures.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Michael Fry's ode to the office

Home is a pretty much unregulated environment from an ergonomics perspective. In a typical office, employers are required to provide a safe working environment and many office workers are familiar with the multitude of health and safety training offered. Yet many employees may be unaware that under law, there are specific requirements for office desks, chairs and their display screen equipment under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Regulations. For those who use display screen equipment – also known as visual display units or VDUs - as a significant part of their normal work, employers must have their employees' workstations assessed and provide safe working equipment to avoid possible risks. The Regulations also take in adjustable desks and chairs, lighting, noise, heat, radiation and humidity.

There are a multitude of risks associated with working from VDUs at improperly set up workstations for long periods of time. This may lead to poor working posture and can result in repetitive strain injuries. According to the Health and Safety Authority, common examples of complaints that may arise are upper limb pains and discomfort (WRULDs), which range from soreness in the limbs, to ongoing pain in the muscles or nerves.

Keeping the back, neck and head rigid for some time – along with poor positioning of the hands - may cause discomfort in the muscles, bones and tendons. It may also lead to eye fatigue and even mental stress. These effects can be avoided by using proper equipment and suitable furniture, and through training and changing the way in which the work is carried out.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, Jamie Maguire on his new business creating work from home furniture

The Regulations only govern a 'normal’ office environment so many office workers probably gave little thought to their comfortable desk chair, monitor at eye level, external keyboard and so on before Covid. However, when workers were sent home in March, they were faced with a different situation. Those with partners who were also working from home had to vie for the one decent home office or desk in the home, if there was one.

Initially, many people worked on laptops, possibly at the kitchen table seated on a dining chair or from the couch or even bed so people were slouched over them for long periods while sitting on unsuitable chairs. Laptops with no separate keyboard are not ideal to be used for long periods of time as they are really suited to occasional work and for use while travelling. Initially it was thought the arrangement would only last a couple of weeks. But it then turned to months and working from home has now gradually extended to become the new normal for many.

Since lockdown, many employers have stepped up and resorted to performing risk assessments online, asking employees to answer questionnaires and send photos of their home office configuration. Many companies are also providing monitors, computer mice and keyboards, to employees. Some are even supplying chairs, those vital pieces of furniture for office workers that offer such important lumbar support.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Tara Curran from the Irish Heart Foundation and Niall Moyna from DCU on the issue of sitting too long at your desk while working from home

Work chairs should be stable while allowing the user easy freedom of movement and a comfortable position. Crucially, the seat should be adjustable in height and the back adjustable in both height and tilt. If necessary, they should be supplemented with a footrest. But it’s not just the chair: the desk, lighting and immediate working environment are important.

Working from home has fundamentally changed how we work and this ‘how’ should be considered too. We are not moving around as much as we did when in the traditional office environment – commuting, walking to meetings, taking breaks with colleagues and so on. Many people go straight from their beds to their work and just sit for most of the day, absorbed in their tasks. Regular movement is critical, and workers should set alarms to remind themselves not only to physically move, stretch and change position,  but also to give their eyes a break too. Working from home has meant many of us can be mentally productive, but it should not be to the detriment of our physical wellbeing.

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ