Increased back pain and chronic diseases related to home work

Anyone who has emerged from the COVID-19 lockdowns with a frozen shoulder or a stiff neck after spending hours hunched over their laptop at the kitchen table would be painfully aware of the dangers of working from home.

Now the nation’s numbers analysts have provided evidence that remote working may be partly to blame for the UK’s chronic workforce shortage, with tens of thousands of additional people reported as long-term ill due to lockdown-related injuries.

In a sign that poor ergonomics can have an impact on the economy, the Office for National Statistics found a huge rise in the number of people who are unfit for work due to neck and back injuries. Overall, the ONS said the number of people identified as economically inactive due to prolonged illness increased from 2 million to 2.5 million in the three years from 2019, with more than 70% of the increase, 363,000, occurring after the arrival of Covid in early 2020.

But a breakdown of the total showed that the number leaving the workforce due to neck and back problems increased by 62,000, the second most cited reason.

Gavin Burt, a registered osteopath and clinic director for Backs & Beyond in London, said he was not surprised by the ONS figures because he saw a significant increase in patients coming to him with back and neck problems, particularly people from twenty years.

“In an office, you have a very well designed ergonomic setup, which helps reduce repetitive strain injury (RSI) and back pain. But we never really thought about ergonomics in the home.”

Burt, a member of the General Council of Osteopathy, added: “People worked with one leg on the bed, one leg out of bed, in a slightly contorted position on their laptop or on uncomfortable dining chairs or sofas. It’s basically overuse injuries, being in poor posture for longer than they would have if they were working in an office.”

The ONS said older people still made up the majority of people inactive due to long-term illness, but the steepest relative increases in recent years were among those aged 25-34. Prolonged illnesses in that age category increased by 42%. , compared to a 16% jump for those aged 50-64.

Hugh Stickland, Senior Statistician at the ONS, said: “The biggest increase came from people with ‘other health problems or disabilities’. While this category includes people affected by a long period of covid, we believe this is just one of several contributing factors. The next highest increase was among people with back or neck problems; It is possible that the increase in home work has given rise to these types of conditions.”

Burt said he had already noticed an improvement in some of his clients, which he attributes to a return to part-time office work and associated travel, particularly for those who travel by public transport.

“People often think of travel as a chore, but it got people up and walking,” Burt said. “I’ve already seen people’s conditions improve by moving to hybrid work, getting back to the commute and once they’re on their feet and going somewhere else, it gives them the emotional space to think about exercise.”

The growing number of economically inactive people has been a key factor behind the labor shortage that alarmed the Bank of England and contributed to higher interest rates this year.

Lockdowns during the pandemic led to a rise in the number of economically inactive people reporting depression, “bad nerves” and anxiety as their top health condition in 2020 and 2021, but the ONS said figures had now returned to levels prior to the pandemic.

Alison Carter, a researcher in human resource leadership and wellness at the Institute for Employment Studies, said employers should focus on making sure their staff have workplace assessments for their office and home settings.

“From an employee wellness standpoint, we need to encourage people who are falling off the radar to return to work and, if musculoskeletal issues are the reason, physical adjustments can be made in the workplace,” said.

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