HR & Management

From hunter-gatherer to hot-desking and flexible working keyboard warrior

10 min read

02 November 2017

Davis Lee, general manager of product engineering, displays and client peripherals at Dell, discusses how hot-desking can affect your health – and shares tips on how to best avoid future aches and pains.

Office life today means different things to different people. The stereotypical banks of desks divided into cubicles have their place, but increasingly people find themselves working from a variety of areas. Modern offices often include break-away areas, with employees hot-desking from one location to the next.

Remote and flexible working are also becoming popular thanks to the advantages of modern IT equipment. So whilst we might think we’re well-versed in the ergonomics of a desk, there’s never been a time where we need to be more self-sufficient in avoiding the hazards that come from sitting awkwardly for prolonged periods.

Desks that lead to downtime

Some 8.8m working days are lost each year in the UK due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSD). According to the Health & Safety Executive, WRMSD accounted for 41 per cent of all employment-related ill-health in 2016. The majority of those injuries occurred as a result of manual lifting, so sitting relatively still at a desk all day might appear to be a safe job.

However, the HSE estimates 35 per cent of all WRMSD were caused by jobs that involve nothing more strenuous than using a keyboard and associated repetitive actions, and/or poor or awkward positioning of displays.

It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of how the workplace affects our health given that office environments and job functions vary. That said, the British Journal of Sports Medicine Office estimates that staff spend 65-75 per cent of their working hours sitting down. EUROSTAT found that three quarters of Brits use a computer at least once a day.

Pain in the neck?

Prolonged periods of relative inactivity contributes to physical disorders and discomfort. A survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by the British Chiropractic Association claimed 35 per cent of respondents experienced back or neck pain after using a desktop or laptop. It’s important to remember it’s not the desktop or laptop that’s at fault – it’s the position people are in when using it.

You wouldn’t get into the driver’s seat of car for the first time without checking the mirrors and adjusting the seat, and you shouldn’t sit down to work at a desk without first ensuring your chair is set up appropriately, with the monitor at the right height for you.

Less than a minute spent setting things up correctly at the start of the day could make an impact on your long-term health. In addition to the correct screen stands, also look into the benefits of using a docking station.

“I see lots of neck, shoulder and back injuries daily,” says Jason Clemow, qualified osteopath, founder of the Clemow Therapies clinic and affiliate to the General Osteopathic Council. “What’s interesting is that those injuries are not usually caused by a single trauma, but are the result of desk-related stress that builds gradually over months and years. Sitting with your hand on a poorly positioned mouse can cause problems over time.”

Dr Joanne Crawford, head of ergonomics and human factors at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, explains that injuries can be caused by desk arrangements people rarely consider: “Usually we come across muscular discomfort. People might not have the right chair height or they have the wrong chair for their body shape.”

It’s doubtful anyone thinks about the impact office work has on the spine, but with 14 ligaments all vital but prone to injury, you might want to consider ways to reduce stress factors. Unfortunately for those who love to sit down, humans did not evolve to stay in an upright seated position – one of the reasons why hot-desking should be tried by employers.

“After 20 minutes, lower back ligaments start to become over-stressed, so it’s important to get up and move around. People have a tendency to stay seated for too long,” says Clemow, who suggests workers set a timer to remind them to have a quick walk or stretch.

Find out what employers can do on the next page

Employers are legally obliged to carry out a desk assessment and fund eye screening tests for people who use displays. Many larger businesses have occupational health staff who oversee the wellbeing of staff, while SMEs without such resources have a wealth of information freely available from government organisations like the HSE.

Organisations such as the Institute of Occupational Medicine are available to carry out desk assessments and provide advice on workstation set-up.

It is not your responsibility to be fully versed in HSE guidance, but if you try hot-desking or work from home time-to-time, make sure your monitor is at eye level so you’re not crouching and your chair is at a height that places your forearms at a right angle to your body. Investing in a screen stand and docking station is a must.

When working from home, you should also avoid the temptation of sitting on your sofa clearing emails while you’re catching up with Netflix.

Desk assessments do not guarantee complete avoidance of WRMSD, especially for those of us who are susceptible.

“The people who come with neck and shoulder issues have one common feature; they tend to have less stamina and strength in the muscles that control the shoulder and shoulder blade movement,” says Clemow. Desk assessments also frequently fails to deliver good results in environments where there is high churn, hot-desking or self-selected remote working.

“Where employees are designated remote workers, employers must provide a desk assessment and the appropriate equipment – this does not apply to situations where the employee chooses to work from home though. It would be good practice to ensure that guidance is given to those people,” points out Crawford.

Things to check for your office desk or while hot-desking

Your eyes should be the same height as the top of the screen of your monitor and your mouse positioned within easy reach, so it can be used with a straight wrist.

Forearms should be approximately horizontal and enough space given to accommodate all documents and/or other equipment. There should also be a space in front of the keyboard to rest hands and wrists when not typing.

Wireless freedom

Relatively recent tech innovations can be of great help. “Wireless keyboards and mice offer flexibility for the user. People are often constrained by wires,” says Crawford. “Those using laptops should invest in a full-size keyboard.

People with smaller hands should use smaller mice. If you’ve got a dual monitor set-up, work out if you’re using the screens equally. If you are, have them in front of you. If you’re using one more than the other, have that one in front. Also, the more screens you use, the further back you should sit.”

It’s never too late

What happens if you do develop an injury? Don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. “Rehabilitation often relies on people changing their habits, which tends not to happen. It is important to realise that treatments such as osteopathy can help, but if the underlying cause is not fixed, the symptoms can come back,” says Clemow.

“The good news is: people are becoming more aware,” notes Crawford. There is increasing recognition of the hazards associated with working at a computer, treatment techniques are becoming widely available and technology is being developed that can minimise work issues.

“We may not have evolved to sit down all day, but our ability to adapt and thrive in any environment has successfully transformed the hunter-gatherer into hot-desking or office-bound keyboard warrior.”

Davis Lee is general manager of product engineering, displays and client peripherals at Dell