· Four in five (81%) desk workers who switched to working from home in lockdown have since had back, neck or shoulder pain, with a quarter (23%) affected often or all the time
· As musculoskeletal (joint, bone or muscle) conditions are already the second most common reason for missing work, charity Versus Arthritis warns of the potential impact on businesses if urgent action isn’t taken to improve set-ups and employee support
· Nine in ten (89%) of those in pain haven’t told their employers about their struggles despite nearly half (46%) saying they take more painkillers than they would like, to get by
· One in three (35%) office workers received no kit, support, or advice from their employer on home working
Versus Arthritis, the UK’s leading arthritis charity, unveils the scale of back, neck and shoulder pain among millions of office workers who switched to working from home since the pandemic began.
A nationwide study found that since the start of lockdown, four in five (81%) office workers have experienced musculoskeletal (MSK) pain due to their home working set up, with a quarter (23%) reporting they experience pain often or all of the time. Lower back pain is the most common complaint, with half of all respondents reporting this (50%), followed by neck pain (36%) and shoulder pain (28%).
With the gains flexible working arrangements provide for people with arthritis and disabilities to get and stay in work, the charity fears that advances run the risk of being reversed without support from employers . Prior to lockdown, 18 million people in the UK already lived with MSK conditions such as arthritis and back pain, leading to the loss of over 28 million working.
The charity argues that government and employers must do more to make people aware of the support they’re entitled to and is calling on people to be open with their employers about their MSK health needs. If left untreated, this emerging pain could lead to a future strain on health and care services too, as one in three workers (32%) have seen a medical professional about the pain they experienced in lockdown.
Tracey Loftis, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Versus Arthritis, said: “At Versus Arthritis we support and encourage flexible working as it’s an effective way to make the workplace more inclusive for people with disabilities and health needs, and is not going away. But the pandemic forced a rushed transition to working from home full-time and many have found themselves working longer hours in unsuitable conditions. Musculoskeletal issues can have a serious impact on your life as well as the economy and our health service. Now is the time to speak up and address them.
“People are reluctant to talk to their employers about their health needs because they don’t know their rights or are worried about job security. Employers and government must do much more to make sure workers know what they’re entitled to and feel comfortable asking for it.”
Caroline Francis, a mental health nurse from Lincolnshire, 50, who’s experienced back pain since working from home in lockdown, said: “I used to be active, out and about with work all the time and going to aqua aerobics classes at the gym. But since working from home in lockdown, not always in the most comfortable position, I have found myself in a lot of pain.
“The pain is the equivalent to what I imagine it feels like to be hit by a truck and I can’t sleep because of it. I cannot move my left shoulder or turn my head and it causes intense headaches. I’m lucky if I get two-three hours a night of sleep; it’s incredibly disruptive. Even the pleasure of walking my dogs has been snatched away. I can no longer walk them both at once because if they pull it is simply too sore.”
Neil Heatherwick, 32 from Glasgow has found that his WFH set up has worsened his pre-existing back pain.
“When I first started working from home, I was basically just sitting at my dining room in the wrong chair. I normally have an adjustable desk where I can sit or stand and that variation is important, but I missed this when I was at home over lockdown.”
“I have a pre-existing condition which affects my back and hamstrings and this gets so much worse after sitting down for a long period of time – either at a desk or in a car. The pain genuinely impacts everything – it’s like a constant ache I can’t get rid of. I feel less motivated to go out and do things. It can turn into a bit of a bad cycle because the more pain I’m in the less I can do. Lockdown made life tough – as it exacerbated this pain. “
FULL SURVEY FINDINGS:
Not just a ‘niggle’:
· Nearly half (46%) say they take more painkillers than they would like, to cope with the pain
· Two in five (37%) said their overall mood has been affected by the pain
· One in three (30%) have been unable to concentrate on work
· A quarter (22%) admitted to being less productive because of the pain
Many unsure when they’ll be back at their usual desks:
· Over a quarter (26%) of those in the study said their employers have not yet set a date for return to the office
· More than one in ten (12%) employees have been told they won’t be returning until 2021 or have been told to work from home in the long term
Not all businesses provided support:
· Over a third (35%) of workers have not been provided with any home equipment or advice to accommodate home working over lockdown
· Big businesses (with 250-499 employees) have performed even worse, with two in five (45%) employees saying they didn’t receive any support at all
Workers in pain feel unable to speak up:
· Nine in 10 (89%) workers who experienced pain due to their home working set up haven’t told their employer about it
· One in 10 (11%) say it’s because they’re worried about job security
· Nearly half (45%) didn’t think the issue was serious enough, a fifth (19%) weren’t sure what help to ask for and a further fifth (17%) didn’t think their workplace would do anything meaningful to help
People’s activity levels are tailing off – people’s focus on taking care of their mental and physical health has waned since the beginning of lockdown, with this downward trend creating a further cause of concern for MSK health:
· Half (48%) of those surveyed admit they are less physically active now than when lockdown was first put in place
· One in four (27%) workers admit to taking less care of their physical and mental health now than before lockdown
Larry Koyama, a physiotherapist and Versus Arthritis MSK Champion said: “Exercise and movement are free and one of the best ways to prevent joint pain, while a proper desk set up and the ability to work more flexibly will go miles to improve the MSK health of workers long term. Stepping away from your computer regularly, moving and stretching every hour and taking a lunchtime or end of work walk could all help your body adjust to your new workplace and reduce your joint pain in future.”
Karen Middleton, Chief Executive of The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, added: “This research isn’t surprising as Covid-19, months of working from home and reduced activity levels will have had a serious deconditioning effect on millions of people.
“We know that First Contact physiotherapists working at GP surgeries have been crucial in treating a backlog of patients seeking appointments for musculoskeletal issues throughout this period.
“The expertise of these physios ensures patients get valuable advice on their condition and self-management tools which will help them to avoid taking time off work and potentially resist the need for surgical options later down the line.
“All of this saves time and money for the NHS but more importantly it enables people to recover sooner and get back to work and enjoying their everyday life.”
IN RESPONSE TO THESE FINDINGS, VERSUS ARTHRITIS IS CALLING ON:
Employees – to understand their rights around support at work, and to have a conversation with their employer about their health needs.
Employers – to enable their employees to work flexibly safely and effectively without risking their musculoskeletal health, by:
· Regularly checking in with employees about their pain and musculoskeletal health
· Funding equipment for employees, and making ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities or long-term health conditions that affect their ability to work
· Creating an environment that promotes physical activity, for example encouraging regular breaks, promoting standing or walking meetings
· Enabling people to work flexibly where possible
· Better informing employees of their employment rights and the support they can ask for
Government – to make it easier for businesses and employees to look after musculoskeletal health, by:
· Increasing promotion of the Access to Work scheme so that more people with disabilities or long-term health conditions and their employers know about the support it provides
· To meet the commitment to new legislation, which would make flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to enable this