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Home office hazards: Helping protect employees in the age of remote work

Dogs. Toys. Kitchen tables.

Physical therapist Deanna Clark has a unique view of how Americans navigate pandemic-induced remote work. The short answer? Not very well. “I’m getting people tripping over their dogs. I’ve had several dog fractures,” Clark says. “There’s more chaos because everybody’s there all the time. People are tripping over toys. They’re not used to taking the stairs while trying to get to their desks for a meeting.”

The ergonomics of these alternate workspaces are creating their own problems as well. A New York Times article noted chiropractors had seen a surge of injuries and discomfort stemming from the nationwide push to work from home. The same articled shared a finding from an American Chiropractic Association survey where 92% of respondents said that their patients reported more neck pain, back pain and other musculoskeletal issues since stay-at-home guidance began.

Home offices are outside the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. With this form of worker safety falling into regulatory gaps, employers are left crossing their fingers that telecommuting employees won’t fall victim to hazards within their home offices. But they can do more than hope by giving employees access to tools, resources and benefits that are surprisingly simple and affordable to offer.

How telecommuting redefined the “hazardous workplace”

American employees working remotely are sustaining home office injuries in the course of the workday because they’re spending more—and more pressured—time in their dwellings. Jobs not typically associated with workplace injury are now vulnerable. Professionals, information technology workers, financial staff and others with screen-bound jobs are succumbing to creeping injuries from ergonomically hostile at-home workstations while also putting themselves in harm’s way for the typical array of garden-variety home injuries.

Many Americans now are not only at home throughout the week, but they’re also doing different things there that create new risks. Homebound workers are developing tennis-elbow-like tendon injuries from high-volume mousing in suboptimal setups. “When you’re holding on to the computer mouse for hours at a time with a static hold, it creates tendinopathy,” says Clark, who specializes in hand and wrist injuries.

Telemedicine and wellness coverage broaden the definition of care

Virtual health offers a widening glimmer of hope. A 2019 Society for Human Resource Management survey of employers found that 58% offer wellness programs. Separately, 72% cover telehealth benefits (up from 23% in 2016)—a prescient trend, given the breakneck pivot to virtual health services in 2020.

“Wellness coaching is a lifeline,” says Shelly Beal, founder of SB Wellness Group, a firm based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that offers wellness and health coaching through employers. “Moving forward, we’ll see a combination of programming that can be personalized and in-person as well as virtual. We’re already working with vendors who provide both virtual and on-site services for wellness and health screenings.”

Benefit portfolios with value-added services such as telemedicine, health advocacy and personal wellness programs can help workers leverage the principles of wellness and remote medicine to work their way to sustained health. Phone-based employee assistance programs can also help with one of the silent risks of remote work: isolation.

The intimate distance of teleconference coaching and medicine can actually make it easier for some people to speak candidly, Beal says. “People are opening up more with their struggles, and we can go so much further with them,” she says. “Sometimes in person, they’re shy about opening up.”