Beware the curse of the laptop warrior

Blog posts

2 Apr 2020

Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

There’s an old joke. Q. Why don’t homeworkers look out of the window in the mornings? A. Because there would be nothing to do in the afternoons.

Until now it’s been traditional to deride some homeworkers as being entitled, latte-drinking hedonists who are more focused on updating their social media feeds and checking out their next City Breaks on Expedia than contributing seriously to GDP. Working at home, especially on Fridays has been caricatured as being a self-indulgent lifestyle choice made by those working in the ‘knowledge economy’ while, in the ‘real economy’, others who are less privileged have taken up the slack back in the office.

With COVID-19 all this has changed. Homeworking is less a choice than an instruction. For those who can, working at home is a public health intervention and one which can save thousands of lives. New data published by the Office of National Statistics shows that, in 2019, just under 30 per cent (8.7m) of the UK workforce had worked at home for some of the time and 1.7m reported working mainly at home. With COVID-19 these numbers are set to rocket to new highs, bringing with them both sanctuary from the risk of infection for many but also a new set of challenges for physical and mental wellbeing.

For millions of UK workers, the honeymoon period of homeworking should be coming to an end. The novelty of checking emails or participating in a Zoom call in their pyjamas will be wearing off – especially for those simultaneously trying their hands at home-schooling. They are starting to discover that working at home demands discipline, concentration and resilience and that, above all, it is not as much of a ‘skive’ as they might have previously believed. It can also be a solitary activity, in an age when extroversion is so highly prized by many businesses. They may also start to find that, no matter how cool it might be to work from a slimline and high-spec laptop, many are being exposed to potentially painful neck, shoulder and wrist strains which might, in the end, represent another health hazard for UK workers.

The UK lost over 28m working days to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in 2018 and a further 17m to depression and anxiety. About 25 per cent have both MSDs and depression. In the rush to kit people out to work at home, many employers have overlooked the fact that they retain a duty of care over the wellbeing of their employees. Yet few will have conducted ergonomic assessments of workstations or issued guidance on how to set up a laptop in a way which can avoid unnecessary strain. While the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has guidance for employers about homeworking, it offers only scant advice of the safe use of laptops. For example, regulations on ‘display screen equipment’ (DSE) advise that the laptop screen should be at eye level and that a separate keyboard should be used via either a docking station or Bluetooth connection. It’s hard to imagine that anything other than a minority of the new laptop warriors have got such adaptations in place.

The Director of the Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work at Southampton University, Professor Karen Walker-Bone told me that ‘thousands of workers new to homeworking are now at risk of neck pain, shoulder and arm pain and other work-related musculoskeletal disorders which can be very painful and which may impair their work activity and quality of life.’ While the wellbeing dimension of moving thousands of workers to homeworking may not be top of employers’ logistical agenda, it will need to be attended to before long if we are to avoid a spike in both physical and emotional health problems in the workforce in the summer.

Of course, as a researcher, this new ‘normal’ is fertile ground for collecting data and IES has launched a new online survey of UK homeworkers, with a focus on their physical and emotional wellbeing. We hope this will help us build up a picture of the way UK workers adjust to homeworking and whether their exposure to new work schedules affect their sleep, their posture, their mental health, their connectedness to colleagues and their morale and motivation to work.

My hunch is that, despite some of the risks, many homeworkers will be in no rush to get back on the hamster wheel of commuting and will find homeworking both liberating and a boost to their productivity and work-life balance. 

Others, of course, will crave the social and other perks of office life and will ditch the laptop as soon as they get the ‘all clear’ to go back. Whatever the next few months hold, however, the shape of work in the UK may have undergone a permanent shift.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.