A clean screen break

Nearly half (43%) of British office workers regularly complain of eye strain, according to a recent survey by Printerland. One in three report severe headaches, with a sixth of all workers suffering from a form of repetitive strain injury - many of these instances linked to using a computer.

Employers are legally obliged to ensure workstations are safe and give staff who use display screen equipment (DSE) appropriate breaks, but a study by Specsavers found that nearly half of employers were unaware of their obligations with regard to DSE. So what is the law around computer screens, what rights do staff have and how can SMEs protect them?

The health risks

Sitting at a computer for six-plus hours a day invites problems, says Tracey Ayton Harding, head of health and safety at public service union UNISON. “Users can suffer eye issues, and poor posture can lead to neck and back problems,” she says. “Employers have a duty of care to ensure a safe working environment, wherever their staff are working from.”

“Excessive computer use can lead to eye dryness, tiredness, even pain and burning,” adds Mr Daniel Ezra, consultant ophthalmologist at London's Moorfields Eye Hospital. “We see people whose eyes are uncomfortable, even red raw - and they still insist on going to work.”

There are other health issues, too. US-based consultant Linda Stone coined the name 'screen apnoea' after finding that as we stare at a screen waiting for the next alert or email, we hold our breath, cutting off oxygen to the brain. 

What does the law say

Use of DSE is, of course, governed by health and safety regulations. More surprisingly, most of these pre-date the internet - DSE still comes under the 1992 Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations.

The government's Health and Safety Executive stipulates that each workstation should be subject to a risk assessment covering screen, keyboard, mouse, software and chair, checking their positioning, legibility, comfort and ease of use. But when it comes to screen usage, because every user and job is different, much of the regulation is open to interpretation. 

“There is no legal guidance about how long and how often breaks should be for DSE work,” says the HSE. “It depends on the kind of work you are doing.” But it does say that where there is no variety in the work, “managers should plan rest breaks”.

DSE users who work on a screen continuously for more than an hour every day are entitled to eye tests funded by their employer and, where workers are found to need them, DSE-specific glasses. The problem is that almost three quarters of companies don't offer this, according to a Specsavers survey.

“Just 27% of 1,400 managers we questioned wholly funded their staff's DSE eyecare; 10% didn't offer anything at all,” says Specsavers corporate account manager Suzanne Randall. 

How can you protect your workers?

Assess the risks. “Employers should alert workers to the risks to minimise the effects,” says Harding. “Assess workstations - you have a duty of care to all staff, so you can assess homeworkers' set-up with photographs. Many adjustments cost nothing, such as enlarging text on screens, adjusting brightness, adapting environment lighting - but where found necessary you need to provide armrests, footrests, chairs with appropriate back support, and of course eye tests and, where appropriate, glasses. Your employees are entitled to all these things.”

Give them a break. The regulations don't specify exact break entitlements, but recommend taking short breaks often, suggesting “five to 10 minutes every hour is better than 20 minutes every two hours”. Ideally, users should take breaks before they are needed, says HSE: “Breaks should be taken when performance and productivity are still at a maximum, before the user starts getting tired. This is better than taking a break to recover from fatigue.” 

Tell them when to stop - and mean it. “Many employees find it difficult to take breaks,” says Harding. “Perhaps they're in the middle of something, or they have a deadline - or they're just conscientious. But employers need to make them take breaks and, crucially, recognise they are on a break - including if they're working at home - so any issue that comes up needing, say, a reply to an email, will have to wait.” 

And should staff forget to take breaks, their computer can remind them. “Employers can download software to set DSE break reminders,” suggests Harding. Numerous examples of this range from eyeCare, which alerts users to look away from the screen and suggests eye exercises; and Iris, which actually covers your screen, preventing you from working.

Step away from the machine. A well-used rule of thumb for breaks is the 20/20/20 rule - every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to stare at something 20 feet away. But there's more benefit in leaving the workstation altogether. “It's helpful to move right away,” says Sarah Cushenan, course development manager at health and safety training specialist iHasco. “Get up, stretch, go and talk to a colleague, put the kettle on - even go outside. Many people look away from their screen when they have a lunch break - and then negate the benefits by staying at their desk and checking Facebook! If you can, get right away.”

Offer an incentive. You can tempt staff away. UK organisation Paths for All encourages managers to organise short staff walks; pharmaceutical sector consultancy TRAC Services has “interactive breaks” where colleagues give a brief talk about one of their passions; Airbnb famously holds staff yoga classes; and Jo Blood, director of workspace consultancy Posture People, helps firms teach staff how to practise mindfulness. “Even in a couple of minutes,” she says, “you can completely immerse yourself in your own thought and return completely refreshed.”

Keep staff on the move. Employees may not need to sit at a screen at all. At Japanese multinational plastics manufacturer Iris Ohyama, all computers are on raised desks without chairs, forcing users to stand up. The company also enforces breaks every 45 minutes to “increase concentration, boost creativity and improve worker health”. 

UK regulations do state that for work being performed while sitting “a suitable seat shall be provided”, but ticketing agency Eventbrite has taken the idea a step forward - literally - by giving DSE users a choice of sitting, standing or even working at a treadmill desk. “Our staff can work in different positions throughout the day,” says head of account management Sam Richards. “Our employees love them.”

Having breaks helps your business

Taking staff off screens is good for your bottom line. A study of 1,300 British workers by AirCon UK found that 41% didn't take screen breaks - while those who did were 10% more productive and made 12% fewer mistakes. But breaks don't just keep staff mentally sharp: “Workers said they felt more part of a team as a result of taking a break,” says director Jonathan Ratcliffe, “which is just as important as a comfortable work environment.”

Ensuring best practice around DSE usage is good for everyone, concludes Cushenan: “Staff are healthier and happier, therefore more productive, which is good for them - and good for your business.”

For further information, read the HSE regulations on DSE use

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