Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Infections: Demand for Physiotherapy Services Increases, as WHO/ILO Publish Report on Teleworking Health Risks

Throughout 2021, we highlighted various statistical indicators of the UK population’s deteriorating musculoskeletal and ocular health that were potentially attributable to remote working practices rapidly introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We shared the results of a nationwide study (here), which found that that 81% of desk workers had developed back, neck or shoulder pain after transitioning to a work-from-home lifestyle. Further, we divulged (here) that optometrists had detected a 30% escalation in cases of digital eye strain, probably due to prolonged screen time, which led The College of Optometrists to coin the condition ‘coronavision’ – see our Horizon Scan of the Disease Market for 2022 (here) for more detailed analysis.

Already, in 2022, we have observed more evidence of this continuing trend.

One of the UK’s leading employee benefits providers. Unum, recently disclosed that demand for physiotherapy services had sharply risen. Indeed, between the end last year and the beginning of this year, the number of digital appointments booked through its award-winning health and wellbeing app, Help@hand, surged by 50%, with two in five patients complaining of back, neck and shoulder problems.

Building on this insight, Unum’s Chief Distribution Officer, Glenn Thompson, commented that:

‘Musculoskeletal concerns are costly for employers, accounting for 15% of all sickness absences in the UK— more than absences caused by COVID-19 [reference to ONS Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2020 data].

Working from home during the pandemic may have exacerbated these issues for workers without the ergonomic setups they’d have in the office and furniture or equipment ill-matched to their needs. Even those with good setups may find working from home leads to fewer breaks or less exercise they’d normally do on the daily commute, which itself can trigger musculoskeletal pain’.[i]

In short, poor home workstation ergonomics could be responsible for a proportion of the bone, muscle, tendon, ligament and soft tissue pain that many workers are currently suffering.

Taking precautionary action to protect remote workers, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) issued its Technical Brief on Healthy and Safe Telework (dated 2 February 2022) and outlined adverse health effects of teleworking, such as higher likelihood of eye strain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), as well adverse behavioural effects, including prolonged sitting and screen time.

The Report acknowledged that:

‘There is extensive evidence on the impact of prolonged computer work on a number of physical ailments (e.g. musculoskeletal damage and eye strain) in office settings, but few studies have specifically assessed the impact of telework’.

As summarised by Personnel Today, WHO and ILO are compelling OH professionals (and employers) to:

  • Educate staff on the potential physical and mental health risks from remote working before the practice is introduced;
  • Refer staff for ergonomic assessments, either at an organisation’s premises or remotely, as well as occupational and physical therapy services to treat MSDs and eye strain;
  • Assess remote workers’ health risks by identifying characteristics and signs that could be early symptoms of health conditions; and
  • Ensure illness or injuries arising from remote work are reported.[ii]

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has praised the Report for ‘setting the standard for making remote work sustainable’.

Head of Health and Safety at IOSH, Ruth Wilkinson, explained that it wants to see:

‘… employers, supported by Governments and workers, take action to prevent and manage risks that come with teleworking and that organisational management systems, policies and processes are in place and well communicated’.

With OH professionals/employers expanding delivery channels with ‘online consultations’, ‘online checklists to conduct risk assessments’, ‘online evaluation of worker health’ and ‘tele-ergonomic assessments’, Dr Ivan Williams, Policy Development Manager at IOSH, stressed that:

‘Managing occupational safety and health risk factors linked to teleworking will also require a more targeted approach’.

 

[i] ‘Work from home advice ends but employee back ache lingers: Unum sees 50% jump in digital physio appointments at start of 2022’ (7 March 2022 Unum) <https://www.unum.co.uk/about-us/media/work-from-home-advice-ends-but-employee-back-ache-lingers> accessed 6 May 2022.

[ii] Ashleigh Webber, ‘More action urged on remote work health risks’ (23 April 2022 Personnel Today) <https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/more-action-urged-on-remote-work-health-risks/> accessed 6 May 2022.