Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Infections: Surging Increase in Musculoskeletal Complications Affecting Remote Workers?

In our latest update on COVID-19 infection claims, which featured in our ‘Horizon Scan’ of the disease market for 2021 (here), we reported that the shift towards homeworking, amid national lockdown restrictions, could foreseeably lead to a significant increase in new musculoskeletal disorders (MSKD) among office workers.

We quoted the Head of HR Research Development at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), who told The Guardian last year that ‘there are going to be questions over whether people can sustain prolonged laptop working’, in the absence of normal office conditions.

On 19 January 2021, Health and Safety consultancy, Arinite, shed some light on the extent to which remote work may have impacted on musculoskeletal ill health so far.[i]

Back in 2016, the Health and Occupation Reporting network in General Practice (THOR-GP)[ii] published statistics on the aggregate total number of MSKD cases (2013-2015), ranked by occupational cause.

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As is apparent in the table above, even years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 3rd most common cause of MSKD was keyboard work.[iii]

Hence, Arinite forecasts that the risk of MSKD will only have been heightened among workers who have been forced to operate from ‘unsuitable workstations’ in their own homes, throughout 2020.

What evidence is there to back up this prediction?

Well, in 2019, figures showed that 5.1% of the British workforce worked remotely[iv] and just 1.4% (1,420 per 100,000) experienced work-related MSKD.[v]

By contrast, during the height of 1st coronavirus lockdown period (April 2020), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) disclosed a 9-fold increase in the number of UK remote workers (46.6% of the population).[vi] Until the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) updates its annual statistics in November of this year, we cannot definitively say what proportion of the working population experienced MSKD, but Arinite has provided some speculation of discernibly increased prevalence.

In particular, it cited (without mention of a source) that an ‘astronomic’ 37.7% of all MSKD cases recorded in 2020 were ‘connected to work’.

It also referred to a nationwide study, carried out by Opinium (on behalf of Versus Arthritis), which concluded that 81% of desk workers who became remote workers in lockdown have since had back (50%), neck (36%) or shoulder pain (28%). This was an increase on the earlier Opinium study (on behalf of Bupa), which had the MSKD toll at 63%.[vii]

The Versus Arthritis poll found that 23% of those suffering claimed to be affected ‘often or all the time’ and 46% conceded that they were taking more painkillers than they would like to, to alleviate the pain.[viii] Alarmingly, 89% of workers questioned had not informed their employers about their physical struggles, though 35% said that they had received no kit, support, or advice from their employer [disproportionately larger businesses (those that employ 250-499 members of staff)[ix]] on homeworking from the outset.

The Leesman Index conducted a survey of over 160,000 homeworkers last year, with 27.2% admitting to working from a ‘non-work specific home location’, i.e. sofas, dining tables, kitchens islands, beds, beanbags, etc.[x] The remainder responded that they either operated in a ‘dedicated work room or office’ (41.9%), or a ‘dedicated work area (but not a separate room)’ (30.9%).

Naturally, it is the former category of homeworker that will be considered most at risk of MSKD. The fact that it represents almost one-third of all homeworkers surveyed may therefore pose a matter of concern.

In spite of signs that MSKD incidence is on the increase, results of a YouGov survey, published in September of last year, revealed that fewer than 4 in 10 workers (38%) – who had ‘never’ worked remotely up until the pandemic – intend to leave their homes for work after the coronavirus restrictions inevitably ease.[xi]

57% of workers seemingly wish to continue to work from home (up to 66% in London), which, if permitted, may further exacerbate the risk of MSKD.

Managing Director of Arinite, Robert Winsloe, deliberates that:

‘With homeworking likely to continue into the future, employers should consider how to care for their remote staff’s wellbeing as part of their health and safety practices. Putting precautions in place will prepare businesses for the possibility of remote working remaining commonplace’.

At present, employers are not legally required to conduct home workstation assessments for employees working remotely on a temporary basis, but should still offer advice.[xii]

If periods of remote working extend, HSE states that employers should maintain regular contact with members of staff to address whether any improvement/equipment is needed.

Permanent homeworkers must be provided with information on how to operate comfortably and avoid developing MSKD, e.g. sit at a desk or table; use a separate keyboard and mouse; position screens to eye-level, use a laptop stand or separate monitor; sit on an adjustable chair with lumbar support; and use a footrest if feet are not in contact with the ground. Employers must also instruct these workers to complete homeworking risk assessments and display screen equipment assessments (DSE). It may also be necessary for them to adjust their corporate health and safety policies to cover homeworking.

 

[i] ‘Has Homeworking Caused a Surge in Musculoskeletal Conditions?’ (19 January 2021 Arinite) <https://www.arinite.co.uk/homeworking-caused-surge-in-musculoskeletal-conditions> accessed 5 February 2021.

Ashleigh Webber, ‘Home working linked to rise in musculoskeletal disorders’ (22 January 2021 Personnel Today) https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/home-working-linked-to-rise-in-musculoskeletal-disorders/> accessed 5 February 2021.

[ii] THOR-GP is part of the long-standing research programme into the incidence of occupational disease at the University of Manchester. It is sponsored by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and supports HSE strategy by supplying it with annual statistics. – see <http://research.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/epidemiology/COEH/research/thorgp/intro/> accessed 5 February 2021.

[iii] ‘THOR-GP 11: Breakdown of musculoskeletal cases reported to THOR-GP according to attributed task and movement’ (2016 HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/thorgp11.xlsx> accessed 5 February 2021.

[iv] Bob Watson, ‘Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK labour market: 2019’ (24 March 2020 ONS) <https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/coronavirusandhomeworkingintheuklabourmarket/2019> accessed 5 February 2021. 

[v] ‘Work related musculoskeletal disorder statistics (WRMSDs) in Great Britain, 2020’ (4 November 2020 HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/msd.pdf> accessed 5 February 2021.

[vi] Alastair Cameron, ‘Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK: April 2020’ (8 July 2020 ONS) https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/coronavirusandhomeworkingintheuk/april2020> accessed 5 February 2021.

[vii] ‘Hurting from home: 11 million home workers in pain’ (14 May 2020 Bupa) <https://www.bupa.com/newsroom/news/hurting-from-home> accessed 5 February 2021.

[viii] ‘“Working from home left me with musculoskeletal pain”’ (17 September 2020 Versus Arthritis) <https://www.versusarthritis.org/news/2020/september/working-from-home-has-left-me-with-musculoskeletal-pain-that-feels-like-i-ve-been-hit-by-a-truck/> accessed 5 February 2021.

[ix] Ashleigh Webber, ‘Working from home: four in five develop musculoskeletal pain’ (17 September 2020 Personnel Today) <https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/working-from-home-four-in-five-develop-musculoskeletal-pain/> accessed 5 February 2021.

[x] ‘The Home working impact code’ (2020 31 December 2020 Leesman Index) <https://j4kul1vgvnqfzak62jhqi1e4-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Leesman-Home-Impact-Code-31-12-2020.pdf> accessed 5 February 2021.

[xi]  Matthew Smith, ‘Most workers want to work from home after COVID-19’ (22 September 2020 YouGov) <https://yougov.co.uk/topics/economy/articles-reports/2020/09/22/most-workers-want-work-home-after-covid-19> accessed 5 February 2021.

[xii] ‘Protect home workers’ (HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/toolbox/workers/home.htm> accessed 5 February 2021.