Image of an Office worker's wrist highlighted due to Repetitive Strain Injury

Workplace health and safety: looking after your physical health whilst working

Workplace health and safety can seem a little overzealous at times and considering the health risks of office work can initially feel a little dramatic, what's next... a risk assessment before using a stapler? 

Sure, it might seem a little overbearing at first glance but thinking about it, hunching over a computer, typing away on a keyboard, shifting uncomfortably, crossing your legs, uncrossing them, twisting, reaching and squinting, can really take its toll on your body.

We are just not designed to sit in one place undergoing doing repetitive tasks for such long periods of time and so the health risks of office work, back pain, joint pain, tiredness, eye strain, headaches and repetitive strain injury, (RSI) are all actually pretty serious and can lead to long term damage if they are left untreated. 

The term repetitive strain injury (RSI) refers to work-related injuries to the muscles, tendons, nerves and soft tissue in the upper limbs. RSI is most commonly caused by repeated actions that are carried out on a daily basis over a long period and usual affects the neck, shoulders, forearms, elbows, wrists or hands. 

When your job starts to cause you physical pain you know it is time to make a change. In fact, according to TUC (Trades Union Congress), six people leave their jobs due to a repetitive strain injury (RSI) condition every day in the UK. But why do we wait for things to escalate to breaking point before we take action, when with a little bit of workplace health and safety we could work on the principles of prevention instead of relying on intervention for a cure.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that around 2.6 million working days are lost each year due to upper limb disorders resulting from RSI – with an average of 14 days lost for each case but organisations that work to improve work-place ergonomics have found that musculoskeletal-disorders (resulting in lost work time) were 3 times less likely to happen.

Employers have a legal duty to provide safe working conditions, employers also have a common law ‘duty of care’ towards their staff. Under the Health and Safety Act, various risk assessments must be completed to measure the overall risk factors to employees. Anything that could cause harm is considered, scored and assessed, from trip and slip hazards and falling equipment right through to ergonomics (the study of people's efficiency in their working environment) display screen equipment and of course, the most common of all the health risks of office work, RSI.

The most significant risk factors for RSI include:

  • Carrying out repetitive tasks for long periods without suitable rest breaks.
  • Poor posture or activities that require you to work in an awkward position.
  • Poor working environment setup.

RSI symptoms can vary from person to person but often include:

  • Pain or tenderness
  • Stiffness
  • Loss of joint mobility
  • Pins and needles
  • Numbness
  • Cramps
  • Swelling

RSI presents in three different stages, not everyone goes through these stages in the same way, but if you experience pain, numbness or tingling, that is a clear signal that you need to allow your body to rest and recover.

Mild early stage RSI

Aches and pain or tiredness occur during work, they may not affect performance and improve with rest. This stage could last weeks or months but is reversible with early intervention.

Moderate, intermediate stage RSI 

Pain and tiredness occur quickly as the capacity for tolerating repetitive work is reduced. Pain or tiredness continues after work and may disturb sleep. Swelling of the tendon areas may start to show. This stage could last several months.

Severe late stage RSI 

Pain, tiredness and weakness continues even after complete rest. Sleep is often affected and even light tasks at home or work could become difficult. This stage is sometimes irreversible.

It is likely that most office workers could identify with experiencing at least one of these stages of RSI recently in the career and with RSI being so prevalent amongst office workers, now is the time to make some changes that will help to reduce the health risks of office work for you.

Top 5 tips for looking after your physical health and ensuring your health and safety in the office

1. Adapt your workspace & equipment

Adapt your workspace & equipment image - guide for recommended seating position at a desk

Simple adjustments to the workstation such as repositioning equipment or adjusting your chair are a good place to start but there are a whole host of adjustments you can make to ensure you are comfortable and safe from RSI:

  • Move your chair close to the workstation.
  • If the chair armrests prevent you from getting close to your desk, you can lower or remove them completely.
  • Maintain a good posture by sitting upright, with your back supported by the chair’s back support – adjust the support until it is comfortable.
  • Adjust your chair to the correct height so you can use the keyboard with your forearms and wrists straight. Your chair and workstation height should allow your keyboard to be directly below your fingers to avoid reaching.
  • Some people find it more comfortable to have their chair seat inclined 5-10 degrees downwards – this can help open up the pelvic area to relieve back problems and help with digestive tract disorders.
  • Sit with your feet flat on the floor or supported by a suitable footstool.
  • Sit directly in front of your computer screen and keyboard.
  • Ensure your legs are not obstructed by drawers or any other objects under the desk.
  • Place your screen at eye level and directly in front of you. Make sure there is a comfortable viewing distance between your eyes and the screen. As a guideline, you should be able to view your screen with a neutral neck position.
  • Place your screen at right angles to the window and ensure there are no glares/reflections on the screen.
  • Place your keyboard directly in front of you, with a space at the front of the desk to rest your wrists when you are not typing.
  • Your shoulders should be relaxed – periodically check that your shoulders do not become tense, rise up or hunch.
  • Positioning your mouse as close to you as possible so you can use it with your wrist straight, avoiding awkward bending.
  • If you need to refer to paperwork, use a document holder. If you tend to look at documents more than the screen when you type position the holder centrally with your monitor to the side to avoid twisting.
  • Use predictive text and auto-correct features, to reduce keystrokes.
  • Learn common keyboard shortcuts, to reduce the use of the mouse.
  • Various non-standard keyboards, mice, palm and wrist supports are available that can improve the positioning of your hands and wrists.
  • When working with a laptop for sustained periods it is best to use a separate keyboard, screen and mouse and place your laptop on a raiser so the screen can be as close to eye-level as possible.

2. Take the right kind of breaks

Take the right kind of breaks image - illustration of a break out area

The Working Time Regulations 1998 state that a worker is entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes when the daily working time is more than six hours. It should be a break in the working time and should not be taken either at the start, or at the end, of a working day.

Your breaks should always be taken away from your desk, sitting at your desk to eat a sandwich is not going to help. Use your break time to stand up, move about, change posture, stretch, or walk. Blinking or resting your eyes and focusing on distant objects can be helpful if you have been staring at a computer screen all day. 

If your work involves intensive use of the keyboard or mouse then any activity that demands a similar use of the arms or hands should be avoided during breaks, so try not to sit scrolling through your social feed during your break times. 

Your break should be taken when your performance and productivity are still at their maximum, before you start to get tired. Taking a break to prevent fatigue is better than taking a break to recover from fatigue, in many ways the timing of the break is more important than its length.

Short, frequent breaks are much better than occasional, longer breaks. A 5-10 minute break after 50-60 minutes continuous screen or keyboard work is better so if it seems reasonable and not too disruptive to your work or others, you could ask your employer if this change in break frequency and duration can be accommodated. 

It is important that you do not remain in the same position for too long, so outside of your break time make sure you periodically move in your seat and adjust your general position. Brief stretching exercises can be done whenever necessary, not just in your break time, no one will begrudge you taking 20 seconds to stretch and reposition yourself every now and then. 

3. Monitor your screen use

Monitor your screen use image - illustration guide of an office worker's seating position at the desk

Visual problems can be tackled by simply repositioning the screen, using blinds to avoid glare, placing the screen at a more comfortable viewing distance, or by making sure the screen is clean. 

Problems caused by computer screens or display screen equipment (DSE) usually stem from improper use, rather than the screen itself. There is no evidence that using screens can damage your eyes, but long periods of working at a computer screen can certainly cause discomfort and headaches. 

Your employer has a legal duty to protect you from the health risks of office work including working with display screen equipment such as PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations apply to workers who use DSE daily, for an hour or more at a time. The law applies if you are at a fixed workstation a mobile worker a home worker or hot-desking. These regulations don’t apply if you use DSE infrequently or only use it for a short time.

You can manage your own workplace health and safety and reduce risks by ensuring that the size of the text and images on the screen are the right size for you, by making sure you take regular breaks from DSE work or by switch to doing something different regularly. DSE regulations suggest a 5-10 minute screen break or change of activity every hour.

You are also within your rights to ask your employer to provide a free eye and eyesight test and pay for glasses if they are needed for your DSE work so don't be afraid to speak up and ask.

Using accessibility features built into your computer can be a great help for many tasks. Text to speech, voice control and speech to text are just some of the great tools you can use. 

The My Computer My Way website has lots of free articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer:

4. Know your rights - Speak up and asking for adjustments

Know your rights - Speak up and asking for adjustments image - a chalkboard with Compliance elements sketched

Because RSI can affect virtually any worker in any job, it is important that your employer not only recognises the reality of the condition, but actively works to reduce the risk of employees developing such injuries. 

Your employer should be following the following steps to ensure your workplace health and safety

Risk Assessments

Ergonomic issues and additional checks regarding repetitive activities should be included as standard in risk assessments. If the risk assessment identifies potential issues, either in the operating environment or with the supplied tools and workspace, your employer has a duty to provide reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Appropriate changes can involve changes to the desk, chair or other office furniture, or through providing equipment, such as an adapted mouse or keyboard. Adjustments can also include changes to your work pattern and the way you work with colleagues.

Training

Provide adequate training so you know how to use your computer and workstation equipment properly.

Even with ergonomic equipment, workers can still develop repetitive strain injuries when it is used incorrectly. All staff training should cover how to use tools safely, with additional attention paid to using equipment in such a way that it reduces the risk of developing RSI.

Encouraging and facilitating regular breaks

Repetitive strain injuries are caused by repetition so wherever possible your employer should be seeking to limit such activities, improve the conditions for people performing those duties and provide plenty of breaks throughout the working day.

Employers who do not meet their statutory responsibilities for health and safety, or who fail in their duty of care, may face employment tribunal. Employers could also be vulnerable to claims of discrimination under the Equality Act if they fail to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for a disabled employee.

As an employee you also have responsibilities at work to ensure your own health and safety, and the safety of your colleagues by:

  • Following training provided to you by your employer.
  • Taking reasonable care for your own safety.
  • Co-operating with your employer's efforts to ensure your and other's health and safety at work.
  • Telling your manager or Health and Safety Representative if you consider that the job or environment is putting your or anyone else's health at risk.

If you have told your employer about your concerns, but they fail to take action, you can report your concerns to the Health and Safety Executive by calling their helpline on 0300 003 1647. After the HSE has received your report they will assess the situation within 24 hours, during the working week and decide if it is something they can and should get involved in. They will then let you know what action they are taking within 21 days. 

Ensuring workplace health and safety is the responsibility of everyone, not just your employer. If you see something that is dangerous it is your duty to report it. 

If you can think of a safer way to carry out a task, step up and talk to your employer. 

5. Stay COVID-19 Safe

Stay COVID-19 Safe image - Illustration of office workers at their desk at a social distance wearing PPE

While many office workers have been home working for the duration of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) lockdown period, it will soon be time to head back into the office as workplaces slowly begin to welcome their workforces back. We already predicted many upcoming changes to the office environment in our first blog of the year that explored the trends affecting office workers in 2020 but no one could have predicted the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic and just how vast the resulting changes would need to be.

While it is the primary duty of your employer to ensure your health and safety in the office is protected and reduce workplace risk to the lowest reasonably practicable level, going back to work during such unprecedented circumstances means that is all of our responsibilities to manage the workplace health and safety risks of COVID-19. 

As you are the one actually doing the work every day, you are likely best placed to understand the health risks of office work and no doubt you will have a clear view on how you can work safely, so do make it the effort to collaborate with your employer and suggest safe working practices.

To ensure your own safety and that of your colleagues, continue to follow government guidelines and maintain good safe working practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • If you feel unwell stay at home and do not attend work.
  • Increase how often you wash your hands.
  • Take an active role in cleaning down your workstation and communal areas after use.
  • Utilise screens or barriers to separate yourself from other colleagues.
  • Use back-to-back or side-to-side working positions instead of face to face.
  • Stagger your break times from other colleagues to reduce the number of people using the communal areas at any time.
  • Take your breaks in safe outdoor areas where possible.
  • Bring your own food and drink to work.
  • Use hand sanitiser regularly.
  • Store personal items and clothing in personal lockers or safe storage areas.
  • Use remote working tools to avoid in-person meetings.
  • Avoid sharing pens, documents and other objects.

Where next? 

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