After a tutorial with a student who spoke of having what they thought might be RSI last year, I decided to deliver a lecture on the subject. It isn’t untypical for students to start to develop RSI symptoms in their final year of study, as they cram for their dissertations and towards their last assignments. However, after listening to this student it struck me that 2020/21 being what is was, with far more students studying from home or halls, without having the breaks of coming into sessions on campus, it was likely that the number of undergraduates RSI may affect could grow exponentially.
Given that many students would be using digital devices for entertainment and socialising more so than usual during lockdown, and that they are provided with barely adequate desk space in halls, or may not have any work set-up at home, I felt the need to put something in place.
In discussing this with colleagues, I then offered to do the same for all staff in our School. Getting feedback from those that attended both sessions, academics and students alike, I was told that it was a great help and that I had bought up issues that they hadn’t previously considered.
I’m no expert in this area—most of my knowledge comes from how RSI affected me personally when it struck in 2009. Debilitating isn’t too strong a word to use for what occurred to me, and as much mentally as physically. I thought my relatively new career as an academic in Higher Education was over almost before it had started, (I was only a couple of years into that particular job). That, and the concern that I wouldn’t be able to go back to being a graphic designer full-time, if at all, it is fair to say that I felt like my world had been shattered.
Thankfully, the then Dean of School, our Health & Safety Department, and HR, were all very supportive. They booked in work-station assessments with a consultant from Posturite, I was bought devices to help me work on a computer, (track-bar, ergonomic mice, and talk-type software), and I saw an Occupational Health advisor who referred me to an NHS physiotherapist. After a month of being signed-off with the strict instruction not to touch a single digital device or keyboard for that time, and then months of retraining myself as to how I worked, my work life thankfully wasn’t over, and I continued in my job successfully. I learned how to be aware of, and manage my condition; a condition that still threatens to flair-up to this day during workload peaks if I do not listen to my body and put in place appropriate action.
Now in 2021, with many discussions about work focussing on when and how people will return to office-based jobs, there is an acceptance both within employees and employers that many firms will not return to being fully onsite in the future, and that working from home will continue to be a feature of many peoples jobs for the long-term future.
In this week’s Guardian, there was a pull-out supplement about the Future of Work that accompanied a campaign by Mediaplanet ahead of London Tech Week’s series of webinars on Redesigning the Future of Work. Important discussions were to be had within this supplement, including with the President of techUK, Jacqueline de Rojas who stated: “Government and businesses need to enable people with digital skills.” I couldn’t agree more, but unfortunately the Mediaplanet paper was littered with stock illustrations from GerryImages of people working in completely unergonomic and RSI inducing ways. This included sitting cross-legged on bed using a laptop and sitting hunched over in an armchair with a laptop on laps. Yes, people need digital skills, but these skills aren’t just about what is happening on the screen—they should also relate to how people work with computers from a health & safety point of view.
During the pandemic I have long thought that we are storing up a future public health crisis by not discussing the issue of people’s work environments and equipment set-up, and these illustrations, used in this context, are actively promoting debilitating work practices. In this, their use is nothing short of irresponsible.
Laptops are a major part of the problem, and the issues arising from their inappropriate use is exasperated if they also become people’s entertainment hubs and shopping centres, being used both for work and work downtime. If I am ever contacted by a student asking for advice about what laptop they should buy for their studies, I always say that unless they truly need the portability of a laptop, they should get a desktop computer. They are ergonomically better, they do not allow the user to operate them lying on their bed, (as many students I have found out through unscientific surveys tend to do), and you get more machine for your money. There is also the added bonus that they are less desirable to steal.
The drive for ‘creative hubs’ and communal work spaces, post-pandemic, I predict will receive a growth spurt. With this, the people running such spaces need to take some responsibility for what they provide over and above a desk, chair, wifi, potted plants and coffee. Some do, but from the photos I’ve seen of creative co-work spaces, suggest the majority don’t. These photos mostly depict trendy looking open offices, all stripped floors and funky graphics on the wall—what I rarely see anyone using mice, separate keyboards, laptop raisers, or feet rests, and what I regularly see are figures hunched over a keyboard and screen with their head’s tilted down with looks of tense concentration on their faces. It doesn’t look healthy to my eyes.
If we are to navigate the future of work, outside of an employer provided set-up, without a public health crisis happening, (whether that be in the creative industries or elsewhere), then we need to seriously address these issues and make sure they are at the forefront of discussions about working from home. Putting a splint on an arm isn’t the solution and is the equivalent of papering over the cracks. All employers need to do better in this regard. And a message to Mediaplanet, please be more sensitive to the impact your choice of imagery can have in future. Let’s not allow one public health crisis precipitate another.