Working in an office, on the surface, appears harmless. There is no comparing it to professions such as firefighting or policing when it comes to risk factor.
Working in an office, on the surface, appears harmless. There is no comparing it to professions such as firefighting or policing when it comes to risk factor. But there is undeniable evidence which suggests that office work can in fact have a detrimental impact on the body and cause more ill-health than most would expect. One crucial aspect of this is with regards to badly designed workspaces. poorly arranged display screen equipment (DSE) for example, can be extremely costly for office workers and employers alike. And this isn’t just limited to company-owned workspaces.
Flexible working rights are currently a hot topic for the UK government, and they seem likely to be enhanced in the near future. While long-term work from home arrangements are becoming increasingly popular, HR professionals face a new challenge that is unique to the digital era: how can businesses continue to carry out mandatory health and safety-related duties of care to staff members if they are not present on that company’s premises?
Remember, whether a worker is sitting in an office chair or at their own dining table, their employer has the exact same duty to ensure their health and safety.1
Recent surveys have shown that the average office worker will spend between four and nine hours each day sitting at their desk, which equates to two sedentary months each year.2 That can lead to all sorts of health problems, from minor aches and pains to an elevated risk of obesity and heart disease.
And, alarmingly, recent research shows that a staggering 34% of home-based workers are too scared to ask their employers for help with setting up their working space at home.3
Businesses have a duty of care to make sure their workers are not operating in dangerous or harmful environments – and contrary to popular belief, a badly set up working area, even an innocuous-looking desk with a computer, can be a very dangerous place for workers and employers alike.
More than a ‘bit of a backache’ – the dangers of a badly set-up work area
Ergonomics, which is the design of work spaces, has attracted great attention as the effects of poor workplace set-up have become apparent.
Most people know that a badly arranged display screen, desk and/or chair can cause musculo-skeletal problems. Indeed, the Health and Safety Executive is so conscious of the risks that stem from desk-bound work that they have issued specific guidance for workers and employers.4
But only few people realise just how much pain and unhappiness those problems can create.
For a backache or trapped nerves may be just the beginning. A worker who develops minor niggles, aches and pains caused by their work space will probably find that if nothing is done, the problem worsens over time. As the pain or restriction bleeds out of their working day and into the rest of their life, they can suffer insomnia, stress and even burn-out. Add to that the desk-bound workers’ increased risk of obesity, heart disease and other health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle, and you have a recipe for disaster.
All of these are serious medical problems that blight lives and for which an employer may be liable.
Even if the worker does not seek compensation for their suffering, the business will likely suffer too. Pain, lack of sleep and constant stress do not make workers happy or productive. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that a well-designed working area makes workers more satisfied with their job and, it seems reasonable to assume, more committed and productive. 5
At the heart of this lies a key problem. Too many workers are trying to fit into work spaces that were designed with the ‘average’ worker in mind. In other words, many businesses have got ergonomics completely wrong. What they should be doing (not least in order to comply with employment law) is to make sure that the workplace has been adapted to suit the specific person using it.
How businesses can help their workers – and themselves
First, the legislation: what should employers do? The law is pretty clear. Under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 employers must risk-assess all display screen equipment areas (yes, even those in workers’ own homes), reduce risks and provide workers with the training and information they need to protect their own health.
For all workers - but specifically in the case of remote workers – this becomes less problematic when there is an open-culture approach to health and safety issues, which can be discussed without fear of negative consequences. In such an environment, workers are not anxious when it comes to reporting even the earliest signs of discontent. They can easily work with the employer to straighten out any issues. Currently, many employees are afraid to voice their worries, which can ultimately result in a much more complicated and unsafe situation
Although there is no single solution for establishing a workplace culture where these issues can be openly discussed, greater awareness of the value it adds is an effective first step. To go one step further, companies that provide their staff with high-quality, video-based DSE training that is engaging and accessible from anywhere, whether that be home or office-based, will guarantee they are making working life more comfortable for not just their workforce, but themselves as well.