Remote work offers a well-packed portfolio of conveniences. At-home employees enjoy flexible scheduling, commute-less workdays, and all of the comforts of home. But in the months since Covid-19 prompted a mass exodus out of corporate cubicles and into home offices, some have realized a less-positive mainstay of remote work: back pain.
“As it turns out, ergonomics are not corporate wellness gobbledygook, but a delicate balance of physics that had been saving my neck all these years without me knowing it,” Vice journalist Hannah Smothers wryly comments on her transition to remote work. “Seven months (and counting) into an indefinite period of working from home, the consequences of slouching and hunching are beginning to show.”
Neck, shoulder, and back pain have all emerged as common side-effects of the remote work revolution. One recent survey from Hinge Health found that 45 percent of respondents said they had experienced back and joint pain since they started working from home. A further 71 percent said that their pain is either new or a worsening of symptoms they had before the pandemic.
This persistent back pain poses a real and long-term problem. Research suggests that short-term (acute) back pain can progress into a chronic condition if not properly treated — an eventuality that could harm employers as well as workers, given that back pain is a leading cause of absenteeism at work and school.
The likely cause of this pain? Ergonomics.
Many people simply do not have the office setups they need to be adequately supported during the workday. In mid-2020, the posture-trainer startup Upright surveyed remote workers and found that over 27 percent of respondents worked from their living room, and 17 percent did not sit on a chair while working. The most common seat, they found, was the couch.
For all of their perceived flaws, office setups prioritize ergonomics. Home environments may not — and in many cases, at-home workers are making do with whatever furniture they happen to have on-hand.
“I’m a mental health therapist for children so I have to do my telehealth sessions confidentially in my one bedroom apartment that I share with my boyfriend,” one professional shared for Vice. “That’s led to me sitting in a three-by-three foot corner of my bedroom, using a kitchen stool as a desk, and a desk chair from a flea market for a majority of my day. […] I’ve definitely experienced more neck pain, headaches, and lower back pain than ever before.”
Someone might argue that these symptoms will go away with social distancing restrictions once the pandemic ends. However, this suggestion falls flat when one considers two points: first, we don’t know when that end will be and, second, remote work is quickly becoming a commonality. Several major businesses, including Twitter, Square, Microsoft, and REI, have expressed their interest in making remote work a long-term part of their HR strategy. A recent PwC survey also found that 55 percent of surveyed executives expect their office workers to work remotely at least one day per week after the pandemic.
Assuming that back pain will continue to pose a problem for remote employees — and it appears that it will — we must consider the opportunity the shift to at-home work poses for the physical therapy sector.
Recent research shows that nearly two-thirds of people experiencing back, neck, and shoulder pain say that they are doing stretches at home, and half are taking over-the-counter pain medication to alleviate their symptoms. Only eight percent, however, are seeking therapy or treatment for their pain.
This disparity indicates that at-home workers want a solution to their pain but are currently hesitant to seek outside care. If physical therapy providers can tap into this pool of ergonomically-challenged remote workers, they could significantly increase their patient base during and after the pandemic — and provide invaluable support to a growing cohort of pained office workers, to boot.
But before PT professionals can do so, they need to overcome the barricade posed by patient hesitancy. For this, they need allies — namely, employers.
In the wake of office closures and event moratoriums, countless businesses are searching for new ways to provide benefits and support to their employees. Because perks such as free snacks, employee retreats, and on-campus features are no longer feasible, some businesses that have persisted through Covid-19 now have extra funds in their employee-support budgets.
Organizations could funnel a portion of those funds into connecting employees with physical therapy professionals via telehealth or in-person appointments. In turn, these professionals could help employees learn how to take better care of their bodies while working remotely. Such an arrangement would benefit all parties — workers would have pain relief, employers could demonstrate support for their at-home workforce, and physical therapists could tap into an expanded patient pool.
Such a solution would require collaboration between employers, insurers, and PT providers, yes — but wouldn’t achieving such a mutually-beneficial result be worth the effort needed to forge the necessary ties?