The pandemic has forced many employees to work from home. In this episode of The Line on Leave podcast, we discuss helpful ergonomics tips to help avoid injury or strain with Alicia Henie, a certified rehabilitation counselor and ADA Coach at The Hartford.
Laura Marzi: Hi, everyone. Thanks for tuning into our latest Line on Leave podcasts from The Hartford. My name is Laura Marzi, and I'm the Chief Marketing Officer for Group Benefits here at The Hartford. Our topic today is extremely timely and one that most of us are very, very familiar with by now – working from home. And today I thought we'd explore how an employer provides the very best support to their remote workforce. I know I speak for a lot of folks that's slouching on the couch with a laptop for eight hours a day, can't be optimal for the body and mind. And today, to help us with all that is our guest, Alicia Heine. At The Hartford, she's a certified rehabilitation counselor and a very dedicated ADA coach. And our employer clients are very, very fortunate to have Alicia in their corner with her expertise. So, Alicia, welcome. I know that workplace ergonomics is something that you're very passionate about. And I was wondering if you could just start us off by briefly describing how you work with our customers.
Alicia Heine: Absolutely. Thank you, Laura. I'm happy to be here today. And this certainly is a hot topic for our customers these days. I've worked directly with our customers and consult with them on workplace ergonomics. I also worked with them on how to keep those employees at work, return to work policies as well as their responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Laura Marzi: Got it. Okay. So I have a few questions for you today if you don't mind.
Alicia Heine: Sure.
Laura Marzi: I wanted to start off with just some questions that are coming from employers about remote support and approximately when did we start getting calls? And when we talk about remote support, what are some of the most common questions that we're getting from our employer clients?
Alicia Heine: I'd say the real uptick in inquiries really started in the May/June timeframe. When employees first went home, everybody thought that this was going to be very temporary, but as time went on, it's got apparent that it was going to be long-term. And for some companies, they're even looking at work at home as permanent. So, some of the companies and even government agencies that initially thought they couldn't support work at home have really made some investments to support it and we're seeing a lot of employees that are really working at home on a long-term basis. So the types of questions we're getting really are on resources for employees, really to help support themselves in the work at home environment. We just completed a flyer with information, working with an ergonomist to help guide employees to setting up their offices ergonomically correctly, whether they're in their home office or working on their kitchen table.
Laura Marzi: So, I think most homes have comfy couches and chairs, which again, as I started us off are great for lounging, but obviously not great for working eight hours a day. Can you clue us in on some of the health risks from the inadequate ergonomics and how would that actually translate into productivity?
Alicia Heine: Laura, that's so true how people have been working and long-term working like that ergonomically incorrect really translates into muscular, skeletal conditions, specifically conditions that really impact your back, neck and wrists. And when you're in pain, you know that's going to impact your productivity. I found that really quickly the other night when I was working on my own personal laptop on the kitchen table without an external keyboard. And I felt myself getting real wrists pain quite quickly. You find yourself hunching over your computer and your pain in your wrists. That would happen quite quickly.
Laura Marzi: So to that end, I was wondering if you could just break down some simple tips for our audience to learn how to adjust their work from home office space.
Alicia Heine: Absolutely. The first thing is really look at how you're working. If you're using a laptop, you really should have an external keyboard and a mouse. Again, to keep yourself from really crunching your shoulders over long-term while use of a laptop certainly does that. Your monitor should be slightly below eye level and approximately an arm's length away from you. You would want to look at your chair, you should have your feet on the floor and if you're a person who can't reach the floor, perhaps you're a shorter individual, then you would want to have a footstool. You also want to look to see if your chair has lumbar support. And if you're using a chair that doesn't have lumbar support, you can certainly purchase a lumbar support cushion. So get that good lumbar support. That's really important.
And then you also want to make sure that you will take breaks and make changes to your positioning. You’ll want to alternate your sitting and standing. And if you don't have a sit-stand desk and you're at home, you might be able to use your countertop to give you a standing space. So be creative in what you do have and use that flexibility. Also, I found that one way to be able to alternate the sitting and standing is also if you're on a call and you can get yourself to think, "Okay, well, I don't need to be sitting at my desk for this. I can stand while I'm on this call." The other thing you want to do is watch out for eye fatigue. What you want to do is be able to look away from your keyboard on a regular basis. Like look out the window or look at a picture maybe 20 seconds away.
Laura Marzi: To that end, these are excellent tips. Have you seen employers do more over the past, say six months or so to support their work from home staff, maybe even allowances for particular types of technology or furniture that type of thing?
Alicia Heine: Yes, there's been a lot of that going on in the workplace and we've seen some companies really step up to the plate on that. One company that we work with has partnered with an ergonomic equipment company and given their employees a thousand dollar allowance to purchase equipment for their home office. So they could potentially purchase an ergonomic chair and a sit-stand desk, which will give them a nice setup for their office space. We've also seen other companies that have allowed employees to take equipment from their office to support their home office such as ergonomic chairs, monitors, and external keyboards. So, that's some of the ways that we've seen employers really trying to help support their employees.
Laura Marzi: That's awesome. I know that traditionally companies have brought in ergonomists and workplace engineers to evaluate workspace in a traditional office setting. Can you tell us how the virtual environment they're all working in right now has changed that approach?
Alicia Heine: Absolutely. What we're seeing is a lot more focused on employers trying to provide the tools to the employees on how to work ergonomically correct. So we've been involved helping with flyers to help set up a workplace ergonomically correct. There also are online trainings that employees can actually access to be able to set up their workplace ergonomically correct. And then if there is a need for the assessment, there is the ability to do a virtual assessment. We've seen that, that can actually be done quite well with the technology available. So we can have an ergonomist actually do the assessment from a remote location.
Laura Marzi: I actually ask in this next question from personal experience and I bet there's a lot of folks listening that can relate to it. So, when employees left their offices and many of us had to do that very quickly in the middle of March, they probably just had their laptops and not much else to begin with. From your perspective, as a professional in this space with hindsight and more preparation, if employers wanted to really truly create a work from home kit, in your opinion, what would be in it? And I'm also interested in knowing if mental health resources would be part of that work from home kit and if so, why?
Alicia Heine: Sure. As far as the equipment, I think that we have seen some employers do this, and I think it's really important that employers do consider this for both now and for the future to have equipment that they have their employees set up with and a list of that is so it's standardly given to employees. But basically that should really include the external keyboard, a monitor, so that people aren't working just off of their laptops, definitely a headset and if possible a chair. And I do think that the mental health resources are really important too. Certainly the EAP is something that can help an employee. And we suggest that that's not only for counseling sessions, but also to help you strategize what might be the right scenario for you. The traditional work-life balance has really changed with this environment. And it's become more of a work-life integration, especially for parents who have children that they're homeschooling and children are learning remotely. So that EAP is definitely a great resource for employees and should be included in that kit.
Laura Marzi: Yeah. I definitely wanted to touch a little bit more on the work from home arrangements. Do you think more employers are looking at work from home as almost even an ADA accommodation? And I'm also wondering too what impact has COVID had on how employers handle accommodation requests like that?
Alicia Heine: Absolutely. I think that this is going to have a marked change in the workforce. I think it's been demonstrated that many jobs can be done effectively at home. So I think that employers are really looking at this for the future. I think that we've seen a lot of different industries who may not have thought that they would be able to have employees work from home and doing it successfully. And I think the longer term impact is going to be that employers are going to be supporting this. As far as the ADA accommodations, that was something that there were employers who in the past wouldn't allow work from home. And I think that this has really demonstrated that in many instances it is an effective way to accommodate an individual to be able to have them work remotely.
Laura Marzi: Yeah. That's very interesting. I think the idea of work from home being a temporary response, I think everybody understood that there probably could be high productivity, right? Because everybody was really trying to do their very best not to miss a beat. I'm actually wondering now, we're hearing lots of feedback from employers that a shift to remote work might just meet their business model going forward. I'm wondering if in your opinion, are there particular industries that you think are best suited for a shift to more permanent remote work?
Alicia Heine: Well, we've certainly seen with our own experience, the insurance industry has done that, but also a lot of other financial service companies have been doing that too. And they've been doing it quite successfully. So, I think that there's a lot of opportunity out there for employees to work remotely.
Laura Marzi: Perfect. This was an excellent conversation and Alicia, I just really want to thank you for sharing your good insights with all of our listeners. This has been a great discussion and I hope everybody has found it valuable. I want to thank you for listening as always. And if you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast and share it with your colleagues. As always, you can visit us at https://www.thehartford.com/pfml for more information and resources to help you manage absence more broadly in the workforce. Thanks very much for listening.