Remote work is one of the biggest trends of our time. Although the technology that enables remote work had been in existence for the decade prior to the pandemic, it took a global health crisis to force companies to embrace it. It gave workers freedom and flexibility. Today, most Americans prefer to work at least some of the time from home. The Wall Street Journal has spoken of remote work as the “new signing bonus”. At a time when demand for labour is at an all-time high, businesses are more open to remote work, or some kind of hybrid work model. Yet, this has not come without costs. There are no free lunches, as they say. Many workers have found that they are having to pay for that freedom and flexibility with physical ailments.
According to one survey, 74% of American workers report feeling pain and discomfort while working from home, with 81% of American workers saying that they experience pain and discomfort on a weekly basis and 51% say it happens almost daily. Half of Americans surveyed said they prefer working from the office, because of the pain and discomfort they experience. Most of the pain felt by these workers occurs on the back (56%), neck (54%) and shoulders (43%), with 31% saying they also feel pain on their hands and wrists.
64% of remote workers believe that their body is less supported in their home compared to the office. 78% indicate that they would use a more ergonomic chair if their employer was willing to pay for it. Shockingly, at least for remote work utopianists, half of those surveyed are willing to return to the office just to avoid the pain and discomfort of working from home.
These statistics are especially shocking given that it has been around 17 months since the start of the pandemic. In the beginning, many remote workers did not invest in their home offices, believing that the pandemic would soon be over. Yet, as time passed, they began to make adjustments to their home office. Yet, only 32% of remote workers say they have a home office, with 31% saying they regularly work from their bedroom. 23% work from their living room, 9% from the kitchen and 5% from the basement. This state of affairs shows that American remote workers are not yet equipped for the realities of remote work.
With poor working conditions, comes physical stress. Posture has suffered as remote workers have slumped into couches (68%), their bed (65%), kitchen counter (51%) or even closet (35%) to work. 54% of remote workers say they work from the outdoors.
One area of progress was reported in a previous study, that indicated that 58% of remote workers have invested in an office chair, though not all use ergonomic office chairs. 27% use dining chairs, with the rest working from their bed or couch.
Finance seems to be the great barrier preventing remote workers from investing in adequate furniture and a home office. 66% of remote workers say they can’t afford to get an ergonomic office chair and 78% said they would use one if their employer paid for it.
91% of remote workers have improved their home workspace, with 90% saying they paid money to do so. So clearly remote workers are aware of the need to improve their work conditions, but many feel constrained by their finances. A majority of remote workers, some 58%, say that their employers have supported them with money or supplies, to help them create a suitable home office.
The average expenditure for home improvements by remote workers is $282. This money has been used to buy a chair (57%), a desk (51%), a headset (42%), a laptop or monitor stand (35%), a keyboard or mouse (35%), plants (30%), a webcam (27%), art, pictures and decor (26%), and a ring light (12%).
Yet, according to a University of Cincinnati report, many remote workers still do not have enough to create the right work environment. Indeed, 64% of remote workers say that they have tried to improve how their background looks for video calls, with 63% saying they have invested to look better on video calls.
Remote workers have spent an average of $195 on upgrades such as art, pictures and decor (41%), blank walls (33%), books (29%), plants, (27%), windows (25%), open or whole rooms (17%), as well as virtual improvements (11%).
Many ergonomic solutions are not expensive to address, but need employee buy-in. From a distance, it can look like a war of the wounded. One manager may suffer from insomnia despite working not to answer emails when in bed; a remote worker may feel stressed from trying to balance remote work with taking care of their children. It’s a time when many people suffer from issues around their well-being. Many of these issues seem very individualistic, and therefore difficult to resolve at a company level, meaning that many employees go without their specific problem being addressed. Remote workers have suffered during this pandemic. Nearly half say that they suffer from some kind of mental health problem and 24% report feeling lonely. Well-being has become incredibly important in the pandemic era and will continue to grow in importance. Many organizations with over 20,000 employees report spending $878 a year per employee on various wellness programs.
As we have shown in this article, ergonomic concerns are leading to many Americans missing out on the gains of remote work. Their bodies have paid the price as non-ergonomic chairs and desks have taken a toll. Half of Americans suffer from musculoskeletal conditions that can be linked to poor ergonomics. This state of affairs has cost $213 billion in healthcare and lost productivity. This is a national problem.
Some companies have responded by allowing workers to take home whatever ergonomic equipment they used in their office, from standing desk mats to swivel chairs. Employers will have to work closely with their employees to find solutions to this massive problem.
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