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From eye strain to back pain, tech workers are sitting sick. Way out?

Globally, including in Africa, tech workers grapple with health issues stemming from extended periods of sitting. Experts advocate for ergonomic improvements and regular breaks to address these concerns effectively.

From eye strain to back pain, tech workers are sitting sick. Way out?
Tech workers and health woes. 🎨: Alex Tudun/Bendada.com

On most weekdays, Matthew Hans-Bello rises at 6:00 AM to the shrill call of his alarm. Occasionally, he grants himself a few extra minutes of sleep by hitting snooze. Once awake, Hans-Bello often get to his morning routine: quiet time, clean up, greetings with family, and breakfast—sometimes.

As the clock approaches 9:00 AM, he eases into his work routine. Some days commence with meetings, while others see him tackling unfinished tasks from the day before or new ones.

Even with a work desk available in his room, Hans-Bello, an integrated solutions manager at TASCK Creative, prefers working from his bed. "I often just lay my laptop on the bed and work from there," he said. His work schedule varies, but he typically spends 12-14 hours each weekday, "depending on the tasks," shifting between his bed and the work desk.

Not so long ago, Hans-Bello began suffering from eye strain due to prolonged screen time and lower back issues from extended sitting. "Apart from these," he noted, "working remotely affected my eating habits, leading to weight gain and affecting my physique." Once an active basketball player, he now struggles on the court due to his increased weight, which he is working to shed.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a shift in work dynamics toward remote and hybrid models, back pain has become prevalent. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health surveyed 51 mobile workers to explore the impact of remote work on their health. The results indicated that 41.2% of remote workers experienced lower back pain, while 23.5% had neck pain. Additionally, half of the participants noted that their neck pain had worsened since transitioning to remote work.

Nuel Umahi, another tech worker who works remotely, told Bendada.com that he experiences "severe back pains" and has had to visit a chiropractor occasionally. He also mentioned that he had an eye defect, which deteriorated between 2021/2022 while he was working as a tech reporter.

Much like Hans-Bello, Nuel occasionally opts to work from his bed. His choice of workspace depends on the day's workload; sometimes he collaborates with colleagues at a co-working space, while other times he settles on the sofa in his living room.

"Many of these challenges, particularly lower back pain, are due to improper sitting posture and prolonged periods of sitting," said Stephanie Ede, a physiotherapist and co-founder of ReHboX, a Nigerian digital therapeutics startup. 

How to sit well. Credit: Dana Davis

"Ergonomic compatibility is becoming a trend, especially for hybrid and fully remote workers," according to Emmanuel Faith, a leading Nigerian HR professional. "What is their workspace like? What kind of chairs do they use to sit on while working? Do they have a laptop stand? A phone stand for those whose work requires a lot of calls (Like customer service)?"

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In Africa, tech entrepreneurs are innovating to solve ergonomic incompatibility. Two years ago, Taeillo raised $2.5 million to expand the delivery of innovative furniture pieces across Africa for individuals and organisations. Micdee is another startup that is enabling ergonomic workspaces.

Lower back pain stands as the most prevalent musculoskeletal condition globally and is the leading cause of disability, especially in developed nations. In the United States alone, it ranks as the sixth most costly medical condition, with annual direct and indirect healthcare costs reaching $12 billion. It also affects productivity in the workplace. "When the pains intensified, I couldn't work on some days. I had to seek permission from my line manager to visit the hospital," shared another tech worker who chose to remain anonymous in an interview with Bendada.com.

Emmanuel Faith said these challenges can impact employee productivity in various ways. "From the psychological effect of not being able to add value because of their health to the physical exhaustion that comes with not meeting your deliverables, the aggregation of this exhaustion spills over to their personal and professional life and this ultimately affects their performance," he told Bendada.com. 

The workspace of Peter Edebeatu, a Nigerian Product Designer. Credit: Workspaces

Walking your way out of back pain and eye strain

"Many people tend to overlook medical assessments and resort to self-prescription, such as getting ergonomic chairs. While helpful, undergoing a physical test will assist individuals in pinpointing the specific issue—whether postural or structural—so that the right prescriptions can be made," Ede said. She added that workers who spend several hours in one position should take frequent breaks to walk around and also carry out other back stretching exercises.

Hans-Bello said that he began walking around his room, which has been helpful. "I'm also considering getting an adjustable desk that will allow me to stand and work," he added. Apart from preventing backaches, the walks also help the individual adhere to ‘the 20-20-20 rule’ to prevent eye strain, which states, "Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds."

Ergonomic workstation set

According to a survey by All About Vision, remote workers spend almost 13 hours a day looking at screens, compared with just under 11 hours for on-site employees. Han-Bello's schedule reflects this trend.

Damaris Akhigbe, an optometrist and eye health advocate, emphasised the importance of the 20-20-20 rule in enhancing visual comfort and reducing ocular strain caused by digital screen exposure. "This simple technique improves blink rate, reduces the oxidative stress on the intraocular muscles and reduces eye fatigue," Akhigbe told Bendada.com.

In addition to these exercises' potential to enhance employees' well-being, Faith who has led people and work culture at various African startups such as Cowrywise and Big Cabal Media stressed the importance of Health Maintenance Organisations (HMOs). He said, "A lot of HMOs in Nigeria need to be revised in terms of components and insurance cover, it is bizarre that there is low insurance cover for pivotal organs like eye-sight, dentition, ENT etc. There is also the need for continuous collaborations between HRs and HMOs, especially when it comes to educating talents about their rights, their coverage and just general health awareness."

"These minor but effective concerns and actions could lead to a lot of positive impacts when it comes to optimising productivity," he added.

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