Work-related back pain – is it a remote working issue?

Has remote working made back pain worse or are there other factors and what about the health issues associated with the office? Lucie Mitchell investigates.

Middle aged man, clutching his shoulder whilst a doctor examines him indicating occupational health or chronic pain


The number of people in the UK who are not working due to health problems has risen in recent years, with many of them citing neck and back pain as the reason. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 2.9 million people are suffering from back or neck problems, up from 2.6 million in 2019, while almost a million were unable to work during the first three months of 2023 due to these issues.

An ONS spokesperson told The Guardian that it was “possible that changing work practices during the pandemic, such as increased home working, may have contributed to the increase in back or neck complaints, as the biggest increase in this category was between 2021 and 2022”.

Meanwhile, according to research in 2023 by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), 73% of British people are struggling with back pain on a daily basis, while almost a quarter have taken up to five months off work due to bone and joint pain. It’s an issue for all generations too, although slightly more acute for older workers, with the research revealing that 36% of baby boomers experience bone and joint pain, compared to 27% of millennials and 28% of Gen X.

Rushed implementation of home working and waiting lists

So, is this surge in work-related neck and back pain solely due to the rise in remote working or are there other factors at play?

“There could be several potential causes for this, including the increase in home working following the Covid pandemic,” comments Gavin Scarr-Hall, health and safety director at HR experts Peninsula. “We saw a significant increase in reports of neck and back pain at the height of the pandemic, which forced many into a remote working pattern at short notice, with no time for proper Display Screen Equipment (DSE) arrangements to be made.”

There are also growing difficulties in accessing treatments. “With the NHS under increasing pressure and longer waiting times to see doctors, workers with musculoskeletal issues are having to endure pain and discomfort for longer than they would have had to wait previously,” remarks Scarr-Hall. “Another key factor is life expectancy. People are living and working longer than ever before, and an older workforce means more employees are living with, often multiple, chronic conditions.”

The right set-up

It seems therefore that there are a range of factors contributing to the rise in work-related neck and back pain, but what is it about remote work specifically that can lead to musculoskeletal issues?

“As new ways of working have emerged, it’s become more common for people to work without the right set-up,” says Jon Booker, physical wellbeing expert at Westfield Health. “When we work from home, we tend to prioritise comfort over ergonomics. It might feel convenient to open our laptops and work from the sofa, but this leads to constant strain on our neck and back due to unsupportive postures.”

He adds: “Poor ergonomics and bad posture, prolonged screen time and a lack of movement can all contribute to musculoskeletal issues and health concerns.”

Less exercise

There are also several issues with sedentary habits that are developing, comments Tim Allardyce, a physiotherapist and osteopath from Surrey Physio. “Previously, we would have walked to a train station or bus stop, commuted to work, and walked to the office. At lunchtime, we would walk to the local shop and walk back to the office. Now we walk from our bedroom to our kitchen, so our step count is significantly lower. We’re sitting longer and exercising less.”

Of course, this isn’t to say there are no health issues associated with going into the office either, so employers should be aware of this too.

“Lighting in an office can be a problem for many workers who find harsh fluorescent lighting creates glare on their screens,” remarks Scarr-Hall. “This can cause some to suffer chronic headaches from exposure to bright light. This is rarely a problem for remote workers, who can mostly rely on natural light or softer directional lamps. Remote workers are typically working alone, which means they can adjust the surroundings to what is comfortable for them, something that isn’t feasible in the office environment.”

The biggest issue with going into the office is the spread of infectious viruses and bacteria, adds Allardyce. “With Covid and Long Covid being such a prevalent problem, most people are more aware of the risks of spreading viruses to work colleagues. Part of the issue is down to the ventilation systems at work, with many having poor ventilation. Commuting carries its own small risks too, with infections more likely to be spread where people are in close contact.”

Risk assessments

With the rise in both home working and work-related back and neck pain, it’s therefore crucial that employers support their employees and develop strategies and practical solutions to protect their workers’ health. This could include carrying out risk assessments for all employees, and encouraging staff to take screen breaks and avoid bad habits that can lead to poor posture.

“It’s important to ensure that workstations are properly set up to prevent long-term health or musculoskeletal issues,” advises Scarr-Hall. “While that’s easy to manage in a physical workspace, when employees are working remotely it can be more difficult. Employers should make sure that proper desks and chairs are being used, with screens being at the correct height and all suitable equipment is provided to each employee, depending on their individual needs.”

When it comes to DSE, the biggest obstacle is often lack of awareness – both on the employer and employee’s part, he adds. “It’s not enough to give employees a form and tell them to raise an issue should they find it. Instead, tailored assessment forms should be used, alongside thorough awareness training, providing information and instruction on the common hazards and control measures for DSE. You’ll need to be able to show each employee has been introduced to these risks before they begin DSE work, are assessed regularly, and can access support when they need it.”

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