Cherry White: Employers should promote physical activity through the workplace

When offices closed in March 2020, it forced a rushed transition to working from home (WFH) full time.

Instead of sitting at ergonomically designed workstations, many employees suddenly found themselves hunched over kitchen counters or slouched on the sofa as they worked from tiny laptops. ‘Commuting’ simply meant stepping into a different room in the house, instead of actively travelling to the workplace.

These poor working conditions, coupled with reduced physical activity, saw a significant increase in musculoskeletal (MSK) complaints among the pandemic’s new homeworkers.

Six months after the government asked people to work from home to prevent the spread of Covid-19 (Coronavirus), a nationwide study, Back pain Britain, published by Versus Arthritis in September 2020, revealed the scale of the impact this was having on the UK workforce.

We found that, since the start of the first UK lockdown, four in five (81%) office workers had experienced MSK pain due to their home working set up, with a quarter (23%) reporting they experienced pain often or all of the time.

Yet over a third (35%) of workers in the study received no kit, support, or advice from their employer on home working, and nine in ten (89%) were reluctant to talk to their employers about their pain.

Before the pandemic, MSK conditions like arthritis and back pain were already the second most common reason for missing work. With some homeworking now a permanent fixture for many employees, there is an increasing risk that poor homeworking set-ups will cause further damage to people’s health and the economy.

It could also lead to additional strain on health and care services, as one in three workers (32%) in our study reported seeing a medical professional about their pain.

Implemented well however, flexible-working hours and the opportunity to work from home can improve productivity, work-life balance, and wellbeing, resulting in benefits for both employees and employers.

For those with a health condition like arthritis, flexibility in where, when and how one works is particularly helpful, as it can enable people to better manage their health.

It is crucial that employers create an environment where MSK health is taken seriously, and homeworkers know what support they are entitled to and feel comfortable asking for it.

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We recommend regularly checking in with employees, funding home-working equipment, and making reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities or long-term health conditions that may affect their ability to work. Employers should also try to promote physical activity in the workplace, for example by encouraging standing or walking meetings, and taking regular breaks.

Cherry White is workplace wellbeing manager at arthritis charity Versus Arthritis