How remote, hybrid working arrangements are affecting musculoskeletal issues

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During the coronavirus pandemic, most people were forced to work remotely and create makeshift offices in spaces that weren’t designed for that purpose. The result is a serious impact on musculoskeletal issues.

Dr. Ayla Azad, interim chief executive officer of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, says remote and hybrid work are having a major effect on musculoskeletal conditions because people are forced to work in more awkward positions at home and they’re not thinking about their posture.

“One of the advantages of working in an office is having an ergonomic setup . . . but people aren’t moving enough as it is. We sit way too long. And then you add the complexity of a work-from-home environment and it’s a recipe for disaster. We’re seeing an increase in neck and back pain, repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel — all sorts of problems related to working from home.”

A 2020 survey published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found 41 per cent of remote workers reported lower back pain and 23.5 per cent reported neck pain. In addition, 50 per cent of respondents said their neck pain has gotten worse since they started working from home.

Mara Notarfonzo, vice-president of total rewards at CAA Club Group, also recognizes the potential health impacts for employees suddenly working from home. In the first few months of the pandemic, she notes, people were just looking for a flat surface to work in their home, which isn’t necessarily good for musculoskeletal issues.

She wanted to focus on ergonomics and support employees while they adjusted to working remotely to avoid exacerbating existing conditions or creating new ones. “As we’ve moved to a more remote workforce, my concern has been how to continue to educate our employees and provide programs and services to make sure we meet their needs — not just in the present, but looking at their long-term overall health as well.”

Proper education

Both Azad and Notarfonzo agree education from employers is key to help prevent musculoskeletal conditions while employees are working from home.

“Education involves making employees aware of what a good desk setup looks like [and] what equipment should be used,” says Azad. “People seem to forget the laptop wasn’t designed for prolonged use; it was designed for travel, but [almost everyone uses one for work]. When you think about how small the keyboard is and how you have to lean in, it’s not ideal for long periods of time.”

However, recommendations from the industry about posture and its impact have changed over the years, she adds, noting chiropractors are no longer pushing the ‘stand up straight, shoulders back’ narrative.

“What we’re finding now is your body is strong, your spine is strong, so you can sit and turn in different ways. It’s not so much that you’re sitting in a certain position, the problem is sitting in one position for too long. It’s the prolonged nature of posture that’s going to hurt. The key is movement, you’ve got to keep moving. So employers should really encourage their workforces to get up every so often and move around.”

At CAA, one of Notarfonzo’s goals is to provide ongoing education around office ergonomics and musculoskeletal conditions. “We want to incorporate that education into our communications strategies throughout the year and make it relevant. It’s as simple as stepping away from your desk and stretching. This is really important because, in the long run, if steps aren’t taken, it will translate into disability claims and decreased productivity.”

Despite the potential effects of remote work, CAA hasn’t seen a significant rise in musculoskeletal claims, she adds, which is likely due to the measures in place to help prevent these issues. According to claims data and feedback from employees, she believes the company’s benefits offerings and supports are truly working.

Early intervention

One of the biggest factors for preventing musculoskeletal issues — and subsequent healing from these conditions — is early intervention, says Azad.

If someone is feeling off, they should see a chiropractor early to help prevent issues from starting in the first place or to get treatment before something becomes a chronic problem, she adds, noting that’s why it’s so important to inform employees about chiropractic and massage benefits, as well as the other resources available to them.

For example, back pain is one of the most common reasons people are prescribed an opioid. “If that could have been prevented in the beginning, people wouldn’t experience the trajectory to a highly addictive pain management medication,” says Azad, referencing the opioid crisis in Canada. “Also, you’re paying for a very expensive drug instead of a paramedical service, which is much cheaper in the long run and can prevent more issues in the future.”

Musculoskeletal issues also intersect with mental health, she adds, noting a person experiencing chronic pain is highly likely to develop mental-health issues. She recommends employers have conversations with employees about how musculoskeletal conditions can impact every aspect of their lives.

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