In 1992, sitting down to a desktop computer at the office was the full extent of most people’s daily interaction with digital devices. Times have changed.
Today, most people use digital devices – smartphone, desktop, laptop, tablet – from morning ‘til midnight. And the workplace is no longer the nexus of that use.
The UK’s Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 as amended by the Health and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002 set out our legal obligations and have provided a good grounding for safe DSE set up and use.
But as our digital devices and the way we use them continues to evolve, employers need to take a wider view when it comes to keeping their employees safe and healthy.
Every company should have a DSE policy that considers the rapidly changing digital use landscape, including the devices themselves, the way we use them, how much time we spend on screen, the design of our work spaces, and our growing need to combat health issues (physical and mental) relating to long-term relentless use.
Look beyond the office
With smartphones at the ready, most people glide seamlessly back and forth between their work and personal lives. Being on screen all the time is creating a whole new world in physical and mental health problems, and we’ve only seen the beginning of it.
The difficulty with digital device use is that its negative effects result from prolonged unsafe use. So, as a one-off, using DSE in an unsafe way isn’t a problem. But the toll of years of constant, unsafe use – for work or otherwise – is.
Employers are not legally obligated to be concerned with what their employees do outside of the parameters of ‘work’, however, because the boundaries between work and life are now blurred beyond recognition, they will be better able to protect their employees if they do consider more than what their employees are doing while they are physically present in the office, while ‘doing work’ remotely or while using company-issued DSE.
Minimising the time spent in awkward, potentially damaging positions – for work or not – should be the aim. For example, holding your head bent down over your smartphone is going to have a negative physical impact whether you do it at the office, on the bus or on the sofa, and whether or not your company gave you the phone or you bought it yourself.
Training employees to set up and use all of their DSE in the safest way possible all of the time is the best path to their long-term health and productivity. These are no longer ‘only at the office’ issues.
Join the work space revolution
As working spaces evolve too, so employees need to understand how to create a best-case scenario set up and apply best use in a range of new work space options. This includes being taught how to use digital devices and their own bodies safely in less formal, ‘in between’ areas and while using a standing desk or having a meeting at a table designed for leaning.
DSE accessories, like laptop and tablet stands and detachable keyboards and mice, should be readily available in every space, so that employees can set up safely, quickly and easily as they move from desk to meeting room to lounge area.
When this equipment isn’t available, either at the office, at home or at the local coffee shop, it’s important that employees understand how best to protect themselves using immediate DIY solutions. For example, propping laptop on a stack of books will suffice until your laptop stand is approved, purchased and delivered, or until Starbucks starts loaning them out.
Employees need to know how to apply good set up in whatever space they’re working in and how to re-apply it every time they move from one space to another.
And, they need to be aware that some devices are safer to use in some spaces and for certain tasks, eg, desktop computers for creating content, laptops for referencing documents.
Set screen time expectations
DSE policy should outline a company’s expectations around work/life boundaries and digital device use. For example, what is company policy on reading and replying to email after office hours? Is there an expectation that employees can be reached while out on lunch break? What are the rules around responding to emails when on holiday?
Setting clear expectations and making known the potential physical and mental health repercussions of being on-screen and available all the time is an important part of protecting employees’ health and wellbeing.
A comprehensive DSE strategy should also include ways to: ensure that employees are taking breaks away from chairs and screens; normalise movement during the work day; and encourage digital downtime (both at and away from work).
Meet the challenges of the new digital landscape
The physical and psychological toll of being on-screen all the time is serious and employers have a duty of care to help employees understand the full impact of their non-stop screen time.
So start with the DSE Regulations, but make sure that company policy and employee comprehension of that policy continues to evolve as each new challenge appears on the digital landscape.
Compliance will no longer be enough to keep employees safe from the myriad health issues presented by digital devices and our attachment to them.