Army occupational health expert discusses teleworking impacts on health
A U.S. Army Public Health Center occupational health expert says common health themes in studies focusing on teleworkers include musculoskeletal pain, weight gain and behavioral health issues. The best way to avoid musculoskeletal pain while teleworking is to dedicate time for regular activity breaks. (U.S. Army Public Health Center photo illustration by Graham Snodgrass) (Photo Credit: Graham Snodgrass) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- In March 2020, at the direction of the White House, the Department of Defense implemented procedures to mitigate the risks brought forth by the looming COVID-19 pandemic. This included a “maximum telework” posture for almost 1.4 million active-duty service members and 800,000 DOD civilian workers.

With the new mandate in place, many DOD employees found themselves working from home for the first time. Most of them have found a way to adjust, and many of them are choosing, or being encouraged to extend their use of the telework-from-home setting.

Many teleworkers are reporting positive effects from the added flexibility, including more free time and reduced commuting. But science shows there are also some down sides.

“While most existing studies are of teleworkers outside of the federal government, the job duties of DOD employees in a telework-from-home setting have reported similar, if not exactly the same, health issues as their non-DOD counterparts,” says Scott Monks, a physician assistant with the Army Public Health Center Occupational and Environmental Medicine Branch.

Monks says common health themes in studies focusing on teleworkers include musculoskeletal pain, weight gain and behavioral health issues.

Though not tied specifically to teleworking, other health conditions may also be made worse with long hours of sedentary work in front of a computer. Conditions including digital eye strain, or “computer vision syndrome”, and sleep disturbance caused by excessive blue light are examples.

Monks acknowledges that not everyone has or develops the same health problems, and some may consider the teleworking experience more positive than negative. But for most people working from a computer at home, there are likely some negative health consequences to improve upon.

“Existing evidence shows that musculoskeletal pain is one of the most common complaints of desk workers,” says Monks.

Monks says that the lower back and neck, followed by the shoulders, wrists and elbows are where most workers have complaints of pain.

This was shown by a study conducted during the pandemic and published in the Aug. 28, 2020, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that surveyed teleworkers and found 41 percent experienced low back pain and 24 percent had neck pain. The study concluded:

  • The home environment seems to be inadequate in the mobile worker population, with an increased risk for musculoskeletal problems, particularly those affecting the spine.
  • Increased sedentariness and poor posture due to the use of non-ergonomic equipment seemed to promote the onset of musculoskeletal disorders, particularly low back pain and neck pain.

If teleworkers feel soreness or discomfort from working extended periods, Monks recommends they consider the ergonomics of their work space and work habits at home.

An assessment of the ergonomics at one’s home work station may be needed. Many DOD employees can enlist the help of a certified ergonomist located at their installation medical treatment facility or safety office to assist in assessing and suggesting corrective equipment and/or adjustments for their home work station.

However, another study published in the Dec. 23, 2020, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found a reduction in the musculoskeletal pain observed in teleworkers. The study attributed this phenomena to the teleworkers’ increasing their frequency of performing physical activity and a change from aerobic activities prior to the lockdown towards more strength training and stretching exercises.

This supports the well-established evidence-based recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services for healthy adults to participate in 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate physical activity, or alternatively 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity. Additionally, adults should aim for two or three sessions of strength training each week.

Even when these goals are met with dedicated exercise sessions, there are still health concerns if you spend the rest of your waking hours sitting at a computer or channel surfing on the couch.

“The best way to avoid musculoskeletal pain while teleworking is to dedicate time for regular activity breaks,” says Monks.

Monks suggests one simple thing everyone can do is take movement breaks during their work day every hour or two. Set a timer as a reminder if needed – and stand up, stretch, take a lap around the house or around the yard, or do push-ups.

“The combination of a more ergonomically-correct work setting, increased physical activity through dedicated exercise sessions, and several short movement breaks or stretch breaks each day will likely reduce your risk of MSK pain,” says Monks.

Even better, says Monks, these same actions may reduce risk or severity of other potential teleworking–related health impacts such as vision issues, weight gain, and behavioral health disorders.

The Army Public Health Center provides several resources for more information about:

The U.S. Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing, and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.