Senior lecturer in occupational science and occupational therapy, Leeds Metropolitan University
Mobile technologies mean we can work anywhere, but our new study shows strong evidence that so-called ‘nomadic’ workers are at high risk of musculoskeletal disorders that can lead to chronic pain and ultimately depression.
Our Europe-wide study of over 4,000 workers using computers showed that they spent over six and a half hours a day sitting and working on computers, laptops and tablets. Almost half have no permanent office desk. A quarter work at home, commonly on a comfortable chair, in bed, at a table, or even on the floor. Over 80% reported ailments such as backache, aching/tense shoulders and headaches as a result of not sitting correctly.
Employers and employees lose out: aliments like these can lead to a reduction in productivity, poor morale, and lost hours due to sickness absence.
One in five of those surveyed had taken time off, at an average of 14.4 days per sufferer, in the last 12 months, costing UK businesses €7,175,876,359 a year.
What’s more, our research shows that musculoskeletal disorders such as these can trigger poor mental health. Ailments had led to depression in 18% of sufferers in the last three years alone.
The risk of these ailments looks set to rise with the increasing flexibility of workplace contexts – and many employers are not doing enough to protect their employees from risk. Our study found that more people who have suffered from ailments (18%) said their company provided no support for a comfortable workspace, compared to those who had not suffered (6%).
Once employees suffer ill health as a result of poor ergonomics, many invest in their own products or strategies, for which they have not been assessed by their employer. Many are unsuitable and do not work. The employee is causing more harm than good and the employer has not protected an already compromised employee from ill-health.
Over 80% reported ailments such as backache, aching/tense shoulders and headaches as a result of not sitting correctly.
UK employers are expected to risk assess the computer or workspace, but less than 50% of nomadic workers employees have had assessment.
Home assessments are currently rare – but they could save employers money in terms of lower rates of absence and sickness and improved morale. It is known that employees work harder and are more motivated when their employers demonstrate an interest and investment in their wellbeing. The costs of virtual assessments and equipment are minimal, so the risk to optimal health and wellbeing can be easily ameliorated.
In effect, risk assessments for nomadic workers could save employers money. Without suitable risk assessments in all work contexts, the costs to the employer in lost productivity outweighs the investment in wellbeing and ill-health preventative strategies.