Even before COVID-19, Matt Shaw was experiencing strange pain in his neck and shoulders at work.
But shortly after switching from a standing desk and computer monitor in the office to either the kitchen table or desk from the 1950s and his laptop at home during the pandemic, he noticed a huge difference in his discomfort.
“When we were 100% away, it just escalated,” said Shaw, 45, a Bristol resident who works in sales for an IT recruiting firm in Montgomery County.
Moving from a full-time, face-to-face working environment to a virtual one was an experience shared by millions of American workers during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, when widespread stay-at-home orders closed and employees self-isolated.
But many home environments contributed to bad habits that physically changed the body. The result is a conditioned workforce that can impact productivity, product quality, and claims for damages once employees return to the office full-time, medical and ergonomics experts said.
“Some people went home from a fully ergonomic desk and $ 1,000 chair and then worked at the kitchen table,” said Ron Wiener, CEO of iMovR, which creates active office workplaces.
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The ergonomics industry saw explosive growth during the pandemic as more companies sought to promote active home workplaces for employees realizing that they still pose a potential liability for workplace injuries, Wiener said.
Reduced physical activity can quickly have significant negative effects on the human body, especially in the elderly, medical experts said. A prolonged sedentary lifestyle can lead to decreased cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance, especially when added to weight gain, a common experience during pandemic lockdowns.
The result is a body that is more prone to fatigue and more likely to experience muscle strain and soreness when faced with a return to pre-pandemic work environments, physiotherapy and ergonomics experts said. Most at risk are workers whose work requires physical labor.
Suboptimal jobs lead to health problems
Once they return to a pre-pandemic work environment, these employees could experience greater decreased performance, said Lisa Orr, professional ergonomics expert and senior consultant at Sedgwick, a leading provider of claims management solutions. People with COVID and older workers may need more time to regain stamina before the pandemic.
Other employees Orr worries about include those who have worked at home on suboptimal workspace configurations for more than a year and may have developed bad habits to make up for the lack of ergonomically correct equipment.
The University of Cincinnati evaluated the home workplaces of more than 800 university employees during the pandemic and identified many issues that could adversely affect homebound workers.
Many chairs were the wrong height, often too low and without lumbar support, so that they did not provide adequate lower back support, according to the 2020 study. Laptop keyboards are significantly smaller than regular keyboards, which can lead to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome on the wrists.
A little more than half of the participating workers had armrests on their desk chairs, but most did not use them; in some cases they were misadjusted, the study found. Forearms resting on hard work surfaces cause contact stresses and strains over the upper back and arms.
Monitors built into laptops were often too low, causing eye and neck strain for users. External monitors were also routinely placed too low and to one side, which in turn created neck strain, the researchers found.
More people have become accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle even after more than a year of work days that essentially included getting out of bed, going to the work computer, and sitting for hours, said Doylestown Health physiotherapist Lauren Direso.
“It’s such a drop in activity,” Direso said. “You wouldn’t think about the physical activity when you got to the car, entered the building. I assume that this would be a complaint if more people returned to the office. ”
Muscle: use it or lose it
The majority of the patients Direso saw for muscle and joint pain in the past month were people who worked from home several days a week as companies prepare to return to the office full-time.
The discomfort that awaits her now is similar to what patients experienced when they moved home from the practice. Patients who have created an ergonomically correct workplace at home could return to an office with a below-average workplace, which can cause neck or back pain, Direso said.
When individuals reduce their activity levels, the muscles become weak and don’t work to keep everything they support strong, Direso said. That means you can’t walk that fast, lift that much weight, and move around that easily. Muscle mass is reduced and needs to be built up again.
But rebuilding lost muscle is a slow process. According to HumanTech, a Michigan ergonomics consultancy, the average person can lose between 1% and 3% of their muscle strength every day due to inactivity, and it takes weeks or months to regain strength and flexibility.
Francis McKenna, 75, of Bristol Township would try going to the gym a few times a week before the pandemic shut it down for months. Even after reopening, he avoided going back to reduce his potential COVID-19 exposure.
After a year in his home and gaining 10 pounds in weight, McKenna noticed a huge difference in his ability to move around easily. He started physiotherapy last year but had to stop when he reached his insurance limit of 30 sessions. He resumed physical therapy in January.
“I can feel the difference. No doubt about it, ”said McKenna. “Whatever condition you were in before this stuff happened, I think everyone’s condition has gotten a little bit worse.”
Less activity means longer recovery time
Older people and those who have been more physically inactive can also expect it will take longer to get back to the shape they were in before the pandemic, Lower Bucks Hospital physical therapist Jay Witkowski said.
Many had mobility problems initially, leading to slower gaits, a higher risk of falls and depression, said Witkowski, clinical coordinator for outpatient physiotherapy at Bristol Township Hospital.
Throughout the pandemic, Witkowski saw an increase in patients who were laid-off workers and who had musculoskeletal disorder-related pain due to poor work habits and workplace configurations.
Sitting for too long, especially in a poor sitting position, doubles the compression on the lower back, causing strain on the neck, back, and hips, tight glutes and hamstrings, and knee problems, Witkowski said.
One patient developed shoulder and neck pain from incorrect use of computer mice after his company switched to remote working during the pandemic. His sitting position also gave him knee pain, “said Witkowski.
“When your bum stops working, you get knee pain,” he said. “If you sit a lot, you run the potential risk (of injury) if you don’t condition yourself in other ways.”
People should increase their physical activity for at least a couple of weeks to a month before returning to the office setting to increase their stamina and endurance, Witkowski and Direso said.
Shaw went to physical therapy for his remote work pain, which made a difference. He also bought a second computer monitor, which he positioned at eye level, and kept exercising regularly during the pandemic.
He now works at home three days a week and the rest of the time in the office, which reopened last month. In the few days that Shaw was physically in the office, he hasn’t noticed any difference in his feelings.
“I’m sure I’ll recognize that as the months go by.”
In this way you can support employees in preparing to return to work after COVID-19
Post-pandemic workers may be physically weakened when they return to some jobs, which can increase the risk of injury. HumanTech offers the following options to support employees in their preparation:
Ergonomic awareness training. Have employees complete general ergonomics awareness training. Employees should also understand the primary MSD hazards so they can identify and report ergonomic issues in their own workplaces.
Review the Standard Operating Instructions. Instruct each employee to review the SOP before returning to work. This can help employees remember all steps in the process, reduce errors, and improve product quality.
Take a break. Encourage employees to take breaks throughout the day. Breaks from physical activity allow time for muscle regeneration.
Limit overtime. Prevent additional physical strain by limiting overtime or allowing employees to work less.
Focus on wellbeing. Encourage employees to focus on personal fitness and general wellbeing during their personal time. Encourage daily walks to maintain cardiovascular fitness and home workouts to maintain muscle strength.
Communicate physical complaints proactively. Encourage employees to speak to a manager if they are physically uncomfortable. This communication can help identify and address problems before they develop into a musculoskeletal disorder.