Top tips to help employees create a healthy home office

Need to know:

  • Feelings of stress and anxiety around underperformance can arise without the cues an office environment provides.
  • Boundary setting is essential to prevent burnout and overwhelm.
  • Employees have a responsibility to share concerns as soon as possible rather than let problems fester.

It’s been one year since the first lockdown but millions of employees are still labouring from original makeshift home offices.

Of 2,000 adults polled by polymer firm REHAU in March 2021, three in 10 said they had no natural light over their working area, a factor that negatively impacted productivity for 65% of respondents. And 3% confessed to toiling away in a walk-in wardrobe.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, duties are placed on employes and individuals to ensure that adequate provision is made for health and safety at work.

The Health and Safety Executive, which has published guidance on how to protect home workers, says employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for staff working from home as for any other employee.

What are the cons of home-working and what practical tips can employers offer to staff to create a healthier home office environment?

Check DIY desk set ups are fit for purpose 

Poor seating arrangements equate to individuals sitting in ‘C’ shape, which is the root cause of many musculoskeletal (MSK) problems, whether or not they are pre-existing, Cheryl Lythgoe, matron at Benenden Health explains. “As such, ensuring employees have a height-adjustable chair, a peripheral mouse, a wrist wrest and a footrest in place is a simple yet hugely important step in combating potential MSK issues,” she says.

‘Tech neck’ is another issue to watch out for; the stress caused to muscles in the neck, back and shoulders by leaning forward to look at smartphones, tablets, or computers for long periods of time. Beth Husted, rehabilitation and wellbeing manager at employee benefits provider Unum,  warns that prolonged laptop use can wreak havoc on posture and cause repetitive strain injuries in the fingers and hands. Instead, Husted recommends switching laptops for desktop computers, working at a desk or table, using a separate keyboard and mouse, positioning the top of the screen at eye level and using a separate monitor if necessary.

Encourage boundary setting for the working day

Just 3% of UK employees want to work from home most of the time, according to research carried out by global workplace experts Steelcase in March 2021. The findings also revealed that nearly one in five (18%) reported a worsening level of productivity. Luke Bullen, CEO, UK and Ireland at corporate wellbeing platform Gympass, is not surprised. “It can be easy to start your working day at home from the moment you wake up, not stopping until the moment you eat your evening meal, but these exaggerated hours can result in feeling burnt out and losing productivity,” he says. “As well as trying to stick to set hours, the importance of taking proper screen breaks away from the computer, whether that’s for exercise, relaxation or just a walk around the room should not be underestimated; it is essential for both wellbeing and for productivity.”

Tom Bivins, head of ergonomics and wellbeing at healthcare provider Vita Health Group, urges employers to consider what work activity employees will be doing and for how long. “Will the scheduling of their work allow them to take periodic screen breaks and move around? If not, how can this be worked into their schedule?” he asks.

Promote lunchbreaks and lead by example

Even before lockdown, employees who worked at a desk were spending the majority of their time sitting down, Husted explains. “This sedentary existence causes a whole number of health issues, including increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sitting for long periods is also associated with poor mental health: people feel their minds work better when they are moving.” Employees, she insists, should be encouraged to venture outside, engage in team-building activities and be provided with simple exercise guides.

“Encourage [employees] to follow the 40-20 rule: they should sit for a maximum of 40 minutes and stand and move around for the other 20,” Husted adds. “Lead by example: show senior leaders being active away from their desks to encourage others to do the same and reinforce the message that activity is necessary and important.”

British Chiropractic Association president Catherine Quinn suggests employees start small. “[They could] take a 15-20-minute walk on [their] lunch break. Over time this will become almost an automatic habit and [they] can build it up from there; it’s all about manageable bitesize chunks,” she says.

Identify hidden environmental risks

More and more people are presenting with headaches and visual fatigue too, according to Bivins, who claims this is likely due to increased screen time and working with a poor ergonomic set-up. A hidden environmental impact may be dry heat from working close to a radiator which can cause contact lenses to become uncomfortable or not taking screen breaks.

Air quality, too, may be an overlooked problem. The US-based Environmental Protection Agency found that people spend around 90% of their time indoors yet air can be up to five times more polluted than outdoors. Log burners, scented candles, pollen, pet dander, smoke, dust, cooking or cleaning with chemicals, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes – are common culprits.

“Studies show that poor indoor air can contribute to fatigue, generally a decline in sense of wellbeing at home, not to mention the reaction that many have to allergens that can affect productiveness,” Alexander Provins, director Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea), Blueair, says.

He advises that employees open windows regularly, vacuum, avoid scented candles and open fires, and place an air purifier with a high clean air delivery rate [CADR] and high filtration performance in the room where they are working. Provins adds. “Not only does cleaner indoor air help to improve overall health, but it also promotes better sleep and increases productivity which is key for an effective at-home working environment.”

Don’t neglect vision

“Long hours in front of a screen coupled with heating and poor room lighting has meant that many home workers are suffering from computer vision syndrome (CVS), where eyes become dry, tired and strained,” warns Alastair Lockwood, eye health specialist and ophthalmologist at Feel Good Contacts. Very often people forget to blink when working on digital screens which denies the hydration the eyes need to stay lubricated. Lockwood recommends drinking water regularly to help eyes feel more comfortable and suggests lighting should be comfortably bright with no shadowy areas of glare from lamps. He also advocates the 20-20-20 rule, which involves looking at something 20 feet away, every 20 minutes for 20 seconds to give eyes regular breaks.

Communicate clearly and promote connection

The lines between personal and professional life have become blurred which makes it harder to disconnect at the end of the day, according to Dr Heather Bolton, a clinical psychologist and head of psychology at workplace mental wellbeing platform Unmind. As a result, employees can overcompensate and overwork, or come up against distractions. “Feelings of stress and anxiety about underperforming also arise when we lack the cues an office environment provides,” Bolton points out. “Living and working in a prolonged state of stress can put our minds into survival mode, which can lead to burnout or long-term issues of stress and anxiety. Communication is key. Clear expectations should be agreed upon and set to help define the boundaries between life and work.”

To help prevent isolation, employers are encouraged to create a sense of community. Gympass operates ‘MyWholeSelf’ sessions, where employees are invited to join a group Zoom call and share the things that have made them happy that month. It could be a new film, book or podcast recommendation to a new wellbeing routine. “We also regularly do a random draw to pair people from different teams together, and encourage them to meet for a virtual lunch or coffee,” Bullen says. “And our Monday morning ‘10 at 10s’ are very popular: we meet virtually as a group every Monday at 10am and either go for a walk together, meditate, stretch or just chat.”

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Help employees understand it’s a two-way street

Finally, Bivins encourages employers to ask for feedback. “Very often employees expect their employer to know what’s happening and then dictate down to them how to solve the issue,” he explains. “But employers and line managers are not mind readers. Employees need to raise any concerns they have with their employer asap, otherwise things cannot be improved.”