As COVID-19 workplace protocols went into effect in March 2020, experts estimated nearly 70 percent of full-time employees worked from home. It surprised many employers that employees were just as productive—not to mention happier—working from home as at the office.
However, there were downsides to remote work, including challenges with childcare, remote schooling, lack of boundaries, and disconnection from peers. But what has rarely been discussed during this forced working from home is how comfortable employees’ working conditions have been in their makeshift or actual workstations at home. In other words, are employees comfortable when working at home?
Researchers Megan J. McAllister, Patrick A. Costigan, Joshua P. Davies, and Tara L. Diesbourg from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and Oakland University in Rochester, NY, studied the area of “The effect of training and workstation adjustability on teleworker discomfort during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Applied Ergonomics (2022).
At the regular work office, a typical workstation setup includes an adjustable office chair or at least a height-adjustable desk. This is a far cry from working at the kitchen table or from the couch in the living room. In view of the health concerns and underlying fear of the Coronavirus, in most cases, the immediacy of the request to work from home did not allow for proper preparations for home-based work.
McAllister and her team identified the most prevalent workplace discomfort associated with office work. There are three key body regions most commonly affected in office workers: lower back, neck, and arms.
The research drew upon university faculty and staff who worked at least part-time at a computer workstation and were required during the COVID-19 pandemic to work from home. They surveyed these employees to report on any discomfort in the three identified body regions, and to note whether the discomfort was new or whether it had worsened since working from home. Overall, the results found working conditions worsened when working from home.
The researchers also put employees into three groups receiving various ergonomics training. One group received individualized or group-based ergonomics training and assessments from an experienced professional. The second employee group completed self-directed online searches (virtual Webinars, ergonomics “tip sheets,” general how-to articles, and other related information). The last group received no training at all.
The findings revealed some interesting insights. While most employees (71 percent) reported working their usual 30 to 40 hours per week, 64.9 percent of the respondents reported their time at the computer had increased since working from home. This resulted in new and worsening discomfort (24 percent and 51 percent, respectively).
Forced telework during the COVID-19 pandemic may be related to an increased risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. This is unlike teleworkers who, prior to the pandemic, volunteered to work from home and likely had a more ergonomic setup.
The researchers recommend employers provide ergonomics training, along with a highly adjustable office chair to reduce musculoskeletal symptoms. Just receiving the chair with no training did not reduce such discomfort, according to the survey.
They also suggest that ergonomics training should emphasize the importance of taking breaks and/or changing position every 30 minutes to reduce the risks of musculoskeletal discomfort.
With the speed with which employees were dispatched to work from home, there was no opportunity to conduct a pre-assessment of their discomfort. This should be in place for all future work-from-home staff. A live virtual assessment also can be conducted to provide recommendations for improved office setup. In addition, setting ergonomic standards for a workstation should be agreed to, such as having an adjustable chair, mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Companies should consider paying some of the cost for home office equipment and furnishings (other research findings suggest only 20 to 25 percent do so).