A Physiotherapist’s Top 5 Strategies For An Injury Free Hybrid Work Model
by Adam Brown BScPT MClScPT FCAMPT
updated Mar 4, 2022
The Challenges Of Remote Work
In march of 2020 thousands of office workers in Toronto and around the world were told to stay home and work remotely. There were challenges. Many people didn’t have a suitable home for office work. Children being home from school complicated things further, not to mention the technological hurdles that needed to be overcome. But desperate times called for desperate measures. Dynamic companies and their employees sorted it out.
There were predictable problems. Poorly designed workstations created unnecessary neck and back pain. Patients were separated from their physiotherapy providers and many came to recognize physical pain as a side effect of the pandemic. Clinics offered virtual care and other creative solutions to provide relief, and eventually solutions have begun to emerge. Companies provided support for workers to improve their home office space, relieving some of the pain for those lucky enough to have space for a proper workstation.
Will Hybrid Work Increase Employee Pain?
As we prepare to return to the office. What lessons can be learned from this past year? Perhaps if we take a moment to consider the challenges facing the workforce in the coming months we can keep people productive and injury free.
It appears that most major companies recognize that remote work is here to stay for office workers. But the trend appears to be toward a hybrid approach, where workers spend a few days each week in an office to capture the benefits of face-to-face collaboration and relationship building. This is allowing major employers to reduce their office space requirements for any given day, and it is driving a redesign of the contemporary office. Gone are the sea of individual workstations and offices, replaced with conference spaces, conversational areas and other creative ways of providing space that anyone can work from.
I think this new office can be a great one. I think the hybrid model makes a lot of sense. But the physiotherapist in me feels we need to be smart about how we move forward to avoid another increase in musculoskeletal pain.
There is a clear risk that the average ‘office day’ will be an unhealthy one. It could serve as a trigger for a variety of challenging conditions including low back pain, neck pain, repetitive strain injuries of the elbows, wrists and hands.
Consider the impact of the following day.
It begins with a commute into the office.
For some this will be brief, but for many workers who have moved farther away in the past two years, this will be an hour or more. In places like Toronto, if people are not comfortable using public transit in a post-COVID world, the traffic will produce a MUCH longer commute.
Upon arrival the day is full of meetings.
After all, we need to get all that collaboration done in a shorter time frame. These will take place in spaces that have generic office furniture. They may be comfortable for a short meeting, but will not be properly set up for any individual worker. Perhaps there will be some independent work done at a generic workstation, again not ideally suited to the individual.
After all of that productive face-time, culture building and strategic planning is done – back to the commute.
A few days each week like this, will result in pain for a large number of people.
So what can we do to ensure the workforce can adapt to the hybrid model without injury?
Top 5 Suggestions For Companies To Ensure Injury Free Hybrid Work
1. Variety In Every Space
Poor office design can drive injuries. Consider that people come in all shapes and sizes and each have a unique history of past and present injuries to deal with. This calls for every space to have a multitude of options for people to make themselves comfortable. Putting a table in the center of the room with 8-10 of the same chairs around it will not do the trick. Employers should engage their designers to account for the fact that some people may wish to stand, others sit on a higher stool. A variety of seating options will allow employees to find a place that will be comfortable for them.
2. Everything Must Be Adjustable
Not just the chairs. An adjustable office chair is an absolute requirement, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Employers need to be thinking about adjustable height desks and tables. Screens and laptop docking stations. Purchasing this equipment is the beginning, not the end. As a physiotherapist I have spent 20 years treating people with adjustable equipment that they have no idea how to configure it to their needs. Employers either need someone on site to help with this task, or they need to teach employees how to use the equipment to ensure the workspace is optimal for them.
One significant challenge is that the equipment will be used by multiple people every week. Consider going to a work area as a 5’3” woman when the last person who used it is over 6’. In the old days, you could ‘set it and forget it’, now everyone needs to know how to set up an ergonomically correct work area.
3. Access To Physical Activity
Given that these will be the most physically inflexible days in employees schedules, employers should consider providing and encouraging some physical activity to break it up. This could be in the form of a gym space, a subsidized local gym membership, or encouraging a yoga or pilates class on site. These sort of benefits are a triple win. People love it , it builds culture and employees have fewer office related injuries.
4. Shorter Meetings And Stretch Breaks
The temptation will be for people to book marathon meetings to get through as much material as possible. Managers need to consider that as a meeting drags on, productivity wanes and injury risk increases. Shorter meetings with frequent breaks to move around, stand and stretch go a long way to reducing pain.
5. Encourage Early Treatment
Employers must recognize that employees going to an appointment to look after a problem before it gets worse is INCREASING their productivity. A skilled physiotherapist can treat the injury, reduce risk and return a person to health much faster with early intervention. If appointments are discouraged, or no time is available for them, problems will compound. The employee will need to seek treatment eventually and the course of treatment will be longer and more involved.
Gone are the days of the daily commute, and people independently grinding out hours of work in a cubicle. That is a great thing! But smart employers will know that with any change there will be challenges and pitfalls. The best companies will be proactive about meeting those challenges head on. Follow the five tips above to keep your workforce healthy, happy and productive!
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