By STEPHEN SINGERHartford Courant
In the coronavirus pandemic that sent millions of employees home to begin new work routines, reports of occupational injuries that were expected failed to materialize.
Remote workers still have lower back aches, neck pains and other afflictions common to sedentary jobs. But many are not reporting their physical ailments, instead seeking health advice to avoid or treat musculoskeletal and other problems.
The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., which handles about 1 million workers’ compensation and disability insurance claims a year, said the number of business customers seeking services to prevent work-from-home injuries jumped 200% in 18 months.
Vivienne Fleischer, co-founder and president of Performance Based Ergonomics, a consulting firm in the San Francisco area, said her company faces a “tidal wave” of requests for virtual ergonomic help and advice.
She, too, said an “anticipated uptick” in workers’ compensation cases has not been reported.
Mary Nasenbenny, chief claims officer at The Hartford, said employees who would be unable to go to the office because of lower back aches or shoulder pains have instead, as remote workers, accommodated themselves at home and kept working.
The Hartford expected rising claims “because people were sitting at their couches without the proper keyboard, without the proper chair height,” she said. Expectations of musculoskeletal problems and injuries were the focus of a “lot of talk” early in the pandemic and employers “caught on quickly,” providing ergonomic help and advice, she said.
Fleischer said cases of eye strain; neck, shoulder and lower back pain; even ear fatigue from too-frequent use of ear buds were the highest she’s seen in more than 20 years. The aches and pains did not end up in workers’ compensation claims, she said. She believes employees who prefer working from home balked at reporting injuries to avoid a forcedreturn to offices.
“They’re not going to HR to report things,” Fleischer said. “They might say ‘I need support. My back hurts. I need a new chair.’”
In Connecticut, 3,574 workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19 were reported as of May, more than double the 1,454 in September 2020. More than 21,000 non-COVID-19 claims were reported as of May.
The exodus from offices left employers and employees unprepared, Fleischer said. Some clients had to work around roommates or were forced to do their jobs from their cars, off a yoga mat, even in a hammock.
“People were struggling to find comfort and privacy,” Fleischer said.
Nasenbenny said workers in The Hartford’s claims organization have been working remotely for years, while other employers had no experience advising workers about how to set up a home office.
“So we thought, boy there are a lot of rookies, employers that are going to be doing it or trying it for the first time and maybe not having all of the tools that they needed,” she said.
The Hartford offers virtual ergonomic assessments, health reviews, an analysis of physical demands and on-site strength and conditioning programs. It also uses analytics to monitor medical conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, neck strain and tendonitis, which can afflict workers in the office or remotely.
In April 2020, just a month after COVID-19 began its spread in the U.S., the American Chiropractic Association surveyed its members and found 92% of respondents reported an increase in musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain and neck pain or knew of people who were having these issues as a result of working from home.
More than half of respondents, or 57%, said a lack of movement was the main reason for a rising number of musculoskeletal problems during the pandemic, followed by psychological stress, at 20%, and poor posture, 12%.
Kelly Ingram-Mitchell, president of Unify Health Services, which partners with The Hartford and other companies for injury prevention and post-injury treatment, said many businesses that budgeted for pandemic-related expenses such as temperature checks and lab testing services failed to anticipate a growing need to pay for workplace injury prevention services.
Businesses are now using work-from-home as a recruiting tool, Ingram-Mitchell said. Bosses are pitching a work-life balance, time for exercise and eating better than at the office, she said.