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Remote working is a pain in the neck; Routine scans are must-haves for employee health

My neck and spine, before (L) and after (R) a year of working from my couch.

I didn’t think remote working was all that bad — until I saw what it had done to my spine.

I’m an entrepreneur, so I have plenty of control over my work-from-home routine. Truth be told, I’d kind of enjoyed taking Zoom calls while wearing sweatpants, and lying back on my couch cranking out emails to customers and investors. Sure, I might have put on a pound or two, but I’d managed to avoid gaining the full “quarantine 15,” and I’d carved out times most days for a run, or at least a walk around the block. And if I had a bit of neck stiffness at the end of the day — well, doesn’t everyone?

It wasn’t until I saw a before-and-after scan of my spine and neck that I realized just how much damage I’d been doing to myself by continuously slumping over my computer during the pandemic. My spine, once straight, had developed a pronounced curve that hunched my shoulders and left me with a permanent crick in my neck: the classic signs of “tech neck.”

The risks of remote work

In the Covid-19 era, we’re seeing a secondary epidemic of work-from-home injuries as remote workers have taken to tapping away on laptops from their sofas and beds, leaving many with strained muscles and creaking joints. As many as half of remote workers have seen neck pain worsen, and 92% of chiropractors say they’ve seen a significant increase in cases of neck pain, back pain, and related issues since the shift to remote work began.

As my own case shows, though, these issues tend to develop so gradually that people assume they’re part of the normal process of aging, or simply forget what it felt like to live without aches and pains. Perhaps that explains why nine out of 10 patients haven’t reported their problems to their employers. We aren’t equipped to self-diagnose in these areas, which means conditions that could be easily remedied wind up going untreated or ignored until they give rise to more serious problems.

This isn’t a trivial issue. According to one recent review, even before the pandemic, treating neck and back pain was the single biggest expense for the US healthcare system, costing Americans an eye-popping $134.5 billion in 2016. That figure is set to soar as the full impact of work -from-home-related injuries become more apparent — and that only accounts for the direct costs of medical treatment.

“Tech neck” and related ailments can also leave employers on the hook for costly workers’ comp claims, and crucial employees unable to work effectively. Research shows that over a quarter of employees who suffer such injuries see their productivity plummet, impacting businesses’ bottom lines even if affected employees don’t need costly medical treatment or time off work.

Prevention beats treatment

To head off these problems, many employers now offer stipends or encourage employees to use expense accounts to purchase home office equipment such as monitors, keyboards, and ergonomic desks and chairs. Such steps are important. But early detection is the real key to effectively preventing “tech neck” and similar work-from-home ailments.

Doctors often prescribe MRIs and similar imaging scans when a patient arrives with a work-related repetitive strain injury. The results can help them identify the root cause of the problem, and guide the patient through a recovery period that often takes months. But there’s no reason to wait until after an injury to benefit from these diagnostic scans. Preemptive scans, using current imaging technologies, can detect tech-related health problems before the patient is even aware of them, and guide them to correct their posture or rethink their work environment to avoid serious injury.

If anyone had told me, before I took my scan, that my aching neck was a potentially serious health condition that needed my attention, I’d have waved them off. Nobody wants to be seen as a whiner, and my aches and pains weren’t doing me any real harm — right?

Now, though, I can see exactly what my bad posture is doing to my body, and that’s motivated me to start making changes. I’m using a standing desk far more regularly, expanding my workout routine to increase my core strength, and checking in with my healthcare team to make sure things are improving. Because I got an early warning, there’s a decent chance that I’ll be able to correct my “tech neck” before it worsens, and enjoy a healthy and productive career for many years to come.

Getting serious about safety

My story shows why it’s so important for employers to step up, and give their employees more visibility into the harm they’re doing to themselves by continuously slumping over while working from home. The pandemic looks set to continue for many months to come, so we can’t afford to simply wait this one out or turn a blind eye to remote workers’ potentially risky behavior.

Think of it like this: if you spotted an employee sliding down the banister on their way to the cafeteria, you’d immediately recognize the risk and quickly put a stop to it. But in the work-from-home world, you don’t have the same visibility into the risks your workers are taking while they do their jobs. Better imaging gives us a chance to change that, by ensuring that employees with problematic posture or potentially risky work habits are given a chance to reform before the problem turns into a costly injury.

People will always slouch. But in the work-from-home era, companies need to get serious about preventing on-the-job injuries, and use all the tools at their disposal to both keep workers healthy and minimize liability for work-from-home health claims. Giving people fancy desks and ergonomic keyboards is only half the battle: we also need to make routine scans part of our health and safety packages — to ensure that problems are detected and corrected early, and that minor strains don’t evolve into full-blown “tech-neck.”

Photo: Andrew Lacy

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