The Huge Office Health Risk Your Company Isn't Warning You About

By Thomas Brochier, Founder of SeeChic

Imagine for a moment that you’re about to start work as a construction worker, meat packer, or lab assistant. What’s likely to happen on your first day of training, besides awkward small talk with your new coworkers? A supervisor will brief you on your job’s various safety issues. They’ll talk about hard hats, hygiene, and lots and lots about eye protection—goggles, eye wash stations, and so on. Of course, these are jobs that we think of as “dangerous,” but data on workplace eye injuries shows us something interesting: eyes don’t just get hurt in high-risk professions. Office jobs can also damage the eyes. (Computer Vision Syndrome, anyone?) Despite that, have you ever started an office job and been drilled on the “20-20-20 rule,” or had a supervisor advise you to purchase a screen shield or computer glasses? White-collar companies rarely drill their employees on eye health, and that needs to change.

Though office workers aren’t dealing with dangerous chemical splashes (hopefully), eyes are in plenty of danger in the cubicle, too. Computer Vision Syndrome is rough on everything from your eyes to your back, leading to headaches, blurry vision, and neck and shoulder pain. And it’s tough to fight on your own. Even if you’re working at an optimal 25 inches from the screen, your natural impulse is to blink less than your eyes require. Many offices also use energy-efficient fluorescent lighting, which cause everything from strained eyes to eye disease. And that harmless little smartphone resting by your laptop is also part of the problem; it, too, emits harmful blue light that can lead to “causes gradual oxidation and deterioration of the macula and leaves eyes more susceptible to macular degeneration, contrast sensitivity and issues with glare.” In other words: bad news for your precious sight.

In America, AOA estimates the average worker spends seven hours a day in front of a computer screen, either at a job site or working from home. Globally, the situation is even more dire. Myopia is skyrocketing among Asian children due to intense studying, lots of screen time, and not enough time outside—a situation that sounds frighteningly similar to a day in the life of an average white collar worker anywhere on Earth. The condition is increasing in Europe, too. Clearly, computer time is majorly affecting daily lives all around the world.

In American workplaces, we know that over 20,000 workplace eye injuries happen every year; we know that these injuries cost $300 million in productivity losses and medical expenses; we also know that these stats include digital eye strain. So why is eye health in the white-collar workplace not more of a priority? It may well be that, despite these statistics, people don’t take this type of injury seriously. At the end of the day, computer-related eye strain still ends up sounding like a first world problem—despite the fact that it affects anyone with access to a screen—when compared to dramatic injuries like thermal eye burns and ocular infection.

But it’s not crazy to warn workers about subtler dangers, about injuries that happen over time due to slow wear-and-tear. In fact, the precedent for this type of warning has already been established: Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) which can flare up with repetitive wrist motion (think of supermarket checkout clerks), has inspired employers to make meaningful efforts at prevention, including periodic stretch breaks, varying activities throughout a shift, and incorporating ergonomic design for better muscle support. This didn’t just happen in a fit of office altruism; it was a measured response to lost productivity and insurance costs. Prevention is not just better for the employee, it’s cheaper for the company as well.

And yet people are either reluctant or fail to understand the relevance of discussing their digital device habits with health care professionals—a whopping 90% of patients won’t talk about this sort of thing with their doctors, according to a report from The Vision Council. This very well may be because “Computer Vision Syndrome” still sounds, well, a little silly. It’s almost unthinkable for an office worker to ask for more natural light in the office, or—gasp!—less computer time. It’s equally unheard of for a boss to pass by an employee’s cubicle and gently suggest that they look away from the screen for twenty seconds. But this shouldn’t be so rare—because, though computers are still a relatively “new” invention, they very well may be slowly costing us our sight.

Some of the ways to delay or prevent eye problems are so simple that they may only add to our reluctance to talk about them in the office. There are specific glasses that reduce muscular strain, there are screen covers that reduce glare, and there’s the good old-fashioned 20-20-20 rule (stop work every 20 minutes and focus on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds). But you know what else is simple? Running on a treadmill to help counteract all that sitting in a chair—and many companies don’t blink at the thought of offering on-site gyms. Why not offer on-site eye exams or free computer glasses, too? This is especially important for companies and entire countries that don’t make a habit of offering eye insurance to their employees. If eye insurance isn’t even on the table, it’s vital that employees be getting solid, practical, free information from their employers.

Companies should also be plastering their offices with posters that clearly delineate the risks of too much computer time. Many workplaces already boast posters detailing their employee’s legal rights; riskier workplaces already have signs about safety recommendations (like the classic “Danger: hard hat required beyond this point” sign). Eye health should be viewed as equally important, and eye strain as equally preventable—and to do that, we need employers who take an active role in informing their employees. (Ironically, the best tips on preventing eyestrain are usually found not in the office, but on the Internet—which we should all be looking away from.)

Of course, some may feel this is more of a governmental issue than a company-level one, but why can’t it be both? Perhaps companies should consider taking a page from the Australian government, which regularly publishes a pamphlet warning white-collar workers about the risks of office and close-range visual work and suggesting that business owners and employees treat health as a partnership arrangement. The World Health Organization also agrees that this should be an issue for everyone; their action plan for 2014-2019 is pushing for “integrated national eye health policies” and programs for enhancing “universal eye health.” Instead of sitting around and waiting for the WHO to dream up the perfect eye drop, companies should be gamely jumping on board with their agenda.

Employers may feel that the burden of employee health should not fall to them, but it’s in their best interest to keep their workers in top form. On the company level, tired eyes make mistakes, or overlook them. On the personal level, serious issues like macular degeneration can be a frightening legacy of all that faithful computer-driven service. We’re quick to call out safety violations at dangerous work sites—those meat packing plants and construction areas. We have no patience for scientists who play with chemicals without wearing goggles. The white-collar workplace should treat its employees’ eyes—the windows to the soul, after all!—with equal gravity and respect.

With contribution from Heather Seggel of Hippo Thinks.

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