Whether curled up on the couch, balancing on a stool at a kitchen island or sitting up in bed, people working from home during COVID lockdowns have adopted a variety of positions as they carry out their day-to-day activities at their computers.
How people are positioned as they work for hours at a time may unwittingly be causing short- and long-term muscle and bone problems, say Brock Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Shawn Beaudette and Associate Professor of Kinesiology Michael Holmes.
The duo has launched an international online survey asking stay-at-home desk workers a variety of questions related to their working habits, physical activity and their musculoskeletal health.
“Much of the ongoing research associated with COVID-19 has been looking at the direct effects of COVID-19,” says Beaudette. “What we’re looking at with this research is some of the secondary effects of COVID-19. Specifically, how does this new sedentary lifestyle combined with sub-optimal working conditions affect somebody’s musculoskeletal health and well-being?”
The musculoskeletal system includes interactions among bones, muscles, soft tissues, cartilage, tendons and ligaments to support body weight and to carry out movements.
For those working at desks most of the day, many workplaces provide specialized equipment to support the body in ways that would prevent repetitive strain injuries such as lower back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.
But those working in home offices without such specialized equipment, or people who adopt unorthodox positions as they work, might be vulnerable to aches, pains and even injury, says Holmes, who is Canada Research Chair in Neuromuscular Mechanics and Ergonomics
“Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, people rushed to makeshift home office set-ups that were less than ideal,” he says. “At the workplace, many people have an adjustable chair, external monitors and computer peripherals that help get them through the workday pain free.
“Without this specialized equipment and a lack of separating ‘office’ from ‘home,’ the effects can be cumulative,” Holmes says. “Poor office ergonomics may lead to a person feeling discomfort at the end of the workday. These discomforts can lead to poor motivation and more sedentary behaviour — and to the cycle continuing.”
Holmes and Beaudette, along with Kinesiology graduate student Daniel Cousins and Medical Sciences undergraduate student Bailey Shaefer, created a survey for workers 18 years of age and older who currently hold full-time employment and who at least partially transitioned into working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The research team is asking participants for details about where and how they’re sitting as they work, if they are using any specialized ergonomic equipment, their movements as they take on additional duties such as child care, their access to health-care workers, and if they’re experiencing any pain in their neck, back, arms and legs.
The aim of this research is to uncover any changes in these areas due to the sudden shift in working environment, says Holmes.
To accomplish this, participants are being asked to rate their musculoskeletal health before COVID lockdowns were implemented, and at the height of any lockdown measures they have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Not only are we surveying how participants are interacting with their workstations, we are also interested in measuring each participant’s level of physical activity (both work related and elective) to understand if added physical activity can moderate any work-related musculoskeletal discomfort,” says Beaudette.
He says survey results will help guide future lockdowns in optimizing worker safety and encouraging physical activity.
So far, around 200 participants in more than eight countries have responded to the survey, says Beaudette. The researchers are aiming to have 2,000 responses by the end of the year.
To participate in the survey, visit: brock.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3Jh9LMh85xGE9CK