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What is teleworking and how can it affect musculoskeletal health?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teleworking has increased enormously and is likely to permanently change the way we work. While there can be benefits to teleworking, we must be aware that it may increase the risk of MSDs or stress.


How do we define telework and how common is it?

Telework is defined as the use of information and communication technologies (such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers) for work that is performed outside the employer’s premises. When we talk about teleworking in this and subsequent articles, we are referring to home-based teleworking.

While home-based teleworking can bring benefits to workers’ lives and health, if proper risk assessments are not completed and thorough safety protocols implemented, it may exacerbate the risk of causing or aggravating a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD).

Early estimates from Eurofound (2020) suggest that close to 40% of those currently working in the EU began to telework full time as a result of the pandemic. This represented a dramatic increase in the number of people working from home. In comparison, in 2019, the share of employees working from home at least some of the time was below 10% in half of EU Member States and above 30% only in Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands - according to a study by the Joint Research Centre (JRC). Given the differences in prior experience with telework, the sudden transition to home-based working during the pandemic may have been more challenging for some workers, employers and EU countries than others.

Although it is not yet clear what the telework situation will be post-pandemic, it is likely that home-based teleworking will remain a core part of many workers’ lives. According to another JRC study, roughly 25% of employment in the EU as a whole is in “teleworkable sectors”, meaning that a significant percentage of EU workers may well continue teleworking even after pandemic restrictions are fully lifted.

What are the main health risks?

Some of the main MSD risk factors that can be increased due to telework are related to not having a properly set-up workspace. Due to the unexpected requirement to start working from home immediately, many people did not have the time or resources to create a dedicated workspace. A common feature of teleworking during the pandemic has been working from improvised set-ups: in bedrooms, at kitchen tables, without suitable furniture and often with added childcare duties further complicating the situation. Home working spaces may also lack ergonomic equipment, for example, desks and chairs that can be adjusted to the appropriate height, ergonomic keyboards and laptop stands.

In an office, employers are able to ensure that environmental conditions such as lighting and heating are suitable. There is no such oversight when employees are teleworking and workers’ health may suffer due to insufficient lighting or rooms that are too hot or too cold.

Another important risk factor for teleworkers is psychosocial. 24.8% of teleworkers report anxiety versus 14.4% of non-teleworkers. Anxiety is a priority issue, particularly at present, given the amplified risks linked to the social isolation experienced as a result of COVID-19 confinement measures. Teleworking also reduces social interaction between co-workers, adding to the problem of social isolation.

Without a clear separation between work and home, there is a danger that workers may feel that their workday never ends. 33.7% of teleworkers (versus 12.9% of non-teleworkers) state that they worry about their work frequently even when they are not working and 34.3% of teleworkers state that they work daily or several times a week in their free time, compared with only 6.9% of non-teleworkers. This inability to switch off from work can increase the risk of MSDs and stress.

Teleworkers also report more sleep issues than non-teleworkers. 38.2% of teleworkers reported difficulty falling asleep several times a month or more compared to 24.9% of non-teleworkers. Teleworkers are also more prone to waking up repeatedly and waking up with a feeling of exhaustion and fatigue compared to non-teleworkers.

It is important that home-based teleworkers have access to a safe, comfortable place to work. A risk assessment of each employee’s homeworking location, which the homeworker will need to play a key role in completing, must be included in the employer’s mandatory risk assessment. This will help to identify any potentially problematic areas. Employers should then provide any necessary equipment, for example, ergonomic laptops, mice and keyboards as well as technical support and guidance on how to set up a home workstation. They can also promote regular exercise, tips for staying connected with colleagues and offer advice on how to disconnect at the end of the workday.

Workers must be supported to ensure that their homeworking environment does not put them at increased risk of any other health issues, including MSDs. On the telework priority page, you will find a wide range of resources, publications and tools to minimise teleworking risks and encourage best practices. Remember to follow the campaign on social media via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date with the latest news.