Is COVID-19 Causing Carpal Tunnel?

Employees picking up repetitive-stress injuries from working at home has become a mounting issue more firms will need to address.

At first, working from home didn’t seem like too much of a challenge. In March, the sales manager set up a card table and a folding chair in her laundry room, then kept the door mostly closed to keep the noise from her kids and pets to a minimum. She actually enjoyed the considerably shorter commute. But around Memorial Day, she noticed her back was aching by the end of the workday. She started taking brief breaks each hour to stretch it out. By July, her wrists began hurting as she typed. And as Labor Day rolled around, she started feeling a pinch in her neck.

While there are no related stats since the pandemic began, injuries spurred from working at home has become a growing concern among human resources executives. While these executives may have spent countless hours and considerable money on buying chairs that create good posture and lighting that doesn’t cause undue eye strain, setting up ergonomically correct home offices wasn’t high on the priority list of most employers. “A lot of organizations have folks working from home who are not used to people working from home,” says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise.

That concern likely isn’t going away. By one estimate, the number of Americans working from home ballooned to more 80 million (it was 3.7 million in 2017) when states first ordered people to stay home. While that number has declined since the lockdowns were reduced and some firms began bringing workers back to the office, everyone expects millions to continue working remotely even after the pandemic ends. Indeed, the risks of working from home was the main topic at the National Ergonomics Conference, which was held virtually at the end of August. “When we looked at the actual stats, one-third of the total workforce transitioned to the home office, and we had very little time to prepare,” said Linda Miller, president and of the ergonomics consultancy EWI Works, to conference attendees.

Even if employers were prepared, some office furniture manufacturers were not set up to get their ergonomic-friendly wares to the homes of individual employees. The backlogs for some high-end office chairs can last weeks or months. At the same time, the average remote worker usually wants a product that can be sent in a single box and can be easily assembled—ideally without needing special tools. But many office-furniture makers are used to shipping out a truckload of chairs and desks to offices, where they can be put together by trained technicians.

At least in the United States, most workers’ comp insurance plans will cover carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-stress injuries as long as they occurred during the course and scope of employment, regardless of whether that employment was in the workplace or the home office. Outside the US, government mandates play a role; in the United Kingdom, for instance, the government has said that there should be no increased risk from using display screen equipment (such as computers) for those working from home temporarily.

Without a doubt, experts say companies in any part of the globe should educate employees about the most common issues around ergonomics. “Oftentimes, you don’t realize you’re putting yourself into repetitive-motion risks,” says Porter. “It’s only after the fact that you realize that you have an injury.” He says firms could schedule remote reviews of homes or point to a host of online guides. For his part, Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits for Korn Ferry, says good ergonomics prevent not only injuries but also the lost work time that such disorder creates. “You can minimize your risk by making small posture adjustments and stretching throughout the day,” he says. “It’s easier than you might think.”

Experts suggest that employers ask workers what their most pressing problems are, and in the difficult cases help research what goods might solve the problem. Some workers might need only a laptop stand (price: often less than $50) to be able to work comfortably; others may need adjustable-height desks. Either way, as Porter says, greater attention will help.