Going to Work FAQs

We spend about 100,806 hours working - that's 11 and a half years - so better keep it healthy.
How can going to work affect my health?

We spend many of our waking hours working so it's hardly surprising that the things we do there can have a major impact on our health. The statistics are enough to make you stay in bed. Currently, at least two million people in the UK are seriously ill or sick as a result of something that has happened to them at work and every year over 400 people are killed in workplace accidents.

In some cases the job itself might be dangerous and have strict health and safety procedures - working on a building site, for example. In others, simply doing the same thing like driving, operating a machine or a computer or even a telephone for long periods can be dangerous.

Having too much work or nobody to turn to for support can be stressful which is also bad for your health. In fact, work is one of the biggest single cause of stress. Many experts now believe that stress is probably responsible for as many deaths as heart disease. Recognising stress and knowing how to deal with it will help you do your job better and make you healthier. Lack of job and pension security which are both increasingly common in the modern so-called flexible labour market is also stressful.

Find out about the health risks in your job. Trades unions reckon that one in three young people are offered no health and safety training at all so it's down to you to ask.

Is my health and safety at work my problem or my boss's?

Under laws like the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, your boss is responsible for making sure you are safe at work but so are you. In other words, if you don't follow the safety regulations and you have an accident, it may be your fault. Ask if you're not told and remember, you can refuse to do something which you think is dangerous.

Look out for the health and safety poster in your office. Under the law, your boss must have one on display. There should also be information on fire, accident, first-aid and any other health and safety arrangements. Make sure you know who, in your office, is trained in first aid.

There are two organisations in charge of making sure your boss is following the rules. These are the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which looks after factories, farms and building sites; and your local Council, which looks after offices, shops, hotels and catering and leisure activities.

Young workers take note. Two people aged 16-24 are killed every month through avoidable accidents at work. If you're worried about safety where you work or you want more information, call the trades union helpline on 0870 6004 882. (You don't need to be a member of a union to call.)

How can a computer affect my health?

Computers can affect your health several ways:

  • Sitting in the same position at them typing, surfing or playing a game can cause repetitive strain injuries
  • The screen can cause eye strain
  • The electro-magnetic fields which all computers and other electrical equipment produce, can make you sick.
RSI

Repeating the same movement over and over may strain the tendons and muscles involved. It can happen at a checkout or in a factory but the major cause at work is the computer. To reduce the risks take breaks (at least once every twenty minutes) and get up frequently. By law, your boss must provide breaks. Several short ones are better than one longer one.

Under health and safety law, your boss must make sure that your computer work-station is assessed to make sure it is set up safely. Here's how to do it:

  • the law says desk chairs must be stable (this usually means five legs in a star shape), comfortable, allow free movement and have adjustable seats and back. The back must support the natural S shape curve in your spine. If it doesn't, use a cushion (preferably a properly designed lumbar cushion.) You can find out where your back curves by running your knuckles up your spine.
  • sit at your desk and adjust the height of your chair so that at the keyboard your arms and shoulders are relaxed and your elbows at right angles. Forearms and thighs should both be parallel to the floor with a 3-5cm gap between the edge of your seat and your knees. If you are too tall to do sit in this position at your desk, get a height adjustable desk or put the desk on blocks. If you are too short and legs dangle over the chair, use a footrest. The chair's armrests should not get in the way of any of this. If they do, move or remove them.
  • site as large a screen as possible arm's length away with the top of the screen at horizontal eye-level. Make sure there's space to rest your wrists - use a wrist rest if you want. Keep the things you use a lot, like the mouse, close at hand so you're not always stretching. Learn to type properly.
  • lap-tops and hand-held gaming consoles are dangerous because their one size fits all design means that either the screen or the keys are always in the wrong position. Only use them occasionally. If you use a lap-top in the office, use a separate screen.

You don't need to be old or doing the job for a long time to get RSI In fact, young people are more likely to be working in enviroments and jobs at risk of RSI. Watch out. 

Eye strain

By law, you can ask your boss to pay for an eye-test if you use a computer screen regularly (and also for any glasses you might need specially for that work). Make sure you ask for this, especially if you start getting headaches. 

Look away from your screen every few minutes to allow your eyes to readjust. Clean your screen regularly and make sure the type size, colour contrast and lighting in your office allow you to read it without squinting or leaning forward. 

Electro-magnetic fields

Anything electrical produces an electro-magnetic field including computers, printers and mobile phones. In offices these fields are far, far higher than anything our bodies have evolved to deal with naturally. How dangerous they are is debateable. Some scientists says they are a major cause of tiredness, colds, headaches, itchy eyes and skin in the office and can even kill. Manufacturers of computers and mobile phones say they are safe. The Government is not sure but has warned children not to use mobile phones too much. What is certain is that there are many examples of unexplained illness at work so until we know the cause for certain, it pays to be careful.

The more natural your work-enviroment (in other words, the more it is like the outdoors), the better it is. (This may be the explanation for the apparent success of feng-shui in some offices.) So get some plants. They help normalise temperature, carbon dioxide and humidity levels and some absorb potentially dangerous compounds called VOCs.

Open the window regularly. Electro-magnetism positively charges the air, fresh air is a natural souce of healthier, negatively charged air. In Holland, for example, nobody is allowed to work more than 6m from a window. 

How can a telephone affect my health?

Cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder can encourage RSI so use a headset, especially when typing at the same time. 

Mobile phones give off electro-magnetic fields which may be dangerous. Despite constant industry reassurances, the government is sufficiently worried to have warned children about overuse. Adults should use a phone twenty minutes a day tops and if you do find yourself getting a warm ear or headaches, take the warnings seriously.

How can driving affect my health?

You car seat needs to be set up properly just like your desk chair. There should be just 30cm between you and the steering wheel (most people sit too far back and strain their back) Use a small cushion to support your lower back and adjust the rear view mirror to keep you sitting upright. Power steering reduces strain on the spine.

Levels of pollution inside a car are up to 18 times higher than those outside. (If you cycle, a mask won't protect you from the smallest most dangerous particles though wraparound goggles might protect your eyes.)

How do I avoid back problems?

Back pain causes more days off work than anything else. There are at least sixteen million sufferers in the UK - more than a quarter of the whole population.

Here are three easy exercises you can do at work to avoid back problems:

  • pull chin and turn head slowly side to side
  • raise shoulders up to ears and back down again
  • stand up feet slightly apart and knees bent. With hands in small of back, push hips forward and shoulders back.

Repeat each five times every so often throughout the day.

Is working long hours unhealthy?

Yes, it is. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at UMIST says that research internationally shows time and again that there is a relationship between long hours and ill health. 'Work 35-40 hours a week for 50 years and you're probably going to be all right. Go consistently over 41 hours a week and you will damage your health and reduce your working life,' he says. Working long hours also means less time for your family, your friends, your social life and for exercise. 

The long hours culture is very much a British disease. And a male one. One in four blokes put in 48 hours a week or more. According to the International Stress Management Association, over half of UK workforce is suffering from stress and one in four takes time off work as a result of stress-related illness. The most frequently-cited causes of stress are long hours and too much work. Don't do it. If you feel you have no choice, tell your trade union. Long hours are a major issue for British unions who are opposed to the government's opt-out of the European Working Time Directive limiting the working week to, in most cases, 48 hours.

The ironic thing is that despite working the longest hours in Europe, the UK is one of its least productive countries. (Of our EU partners, only Greece and Portugal are less efficient).

How do I avoid stress at work?

You can't. It's how you deal with it that matters. Rather than trying to avoid it or, even worse, denying that it affects you, it's best to learn to let it out. First, learn to recognise your symptoms of stress.

Typical warning signs include: feeling of loss of control; thinking about work even when not doing it; problems sleeping or eating; feeling the need for drink or drugs; shorter temper; reduced attention; inability to focus; and loss of interest in sex, appearance and life in general.

Stress is inevitable in the 21st century. There is more information in a single edition of today's newspaper than the average person would come across in a whole lifetime 300 years ago. No wonder we sometimes feel swamped. Don't take things - or yourself - too seriously. Take pride in what you do but don't try to control everything. Change is inevitable and also unpredictable. Don't fight it, enjoy it.

You could prioritise your work by making a daily 'to do' list. Writing things down frees the mind for what it's best at. If you really have too much to do, tell your boss. If you don't feel you can do this talk to a work mate or your trade union. Join the union (everyone has the right to join) if you haven't already.

Here are six stress control techniques:

  • sing - the breath and lung control needed for singing will get you breathing normally and thinking clearly again.
  • swim - actually, any physical exercise will help but when you add the relaxing effect that just looking at water can have, swimming is probably the best bet for stress.
  • have sex - making love gets the heart and the hormones going, helps you sleep and reduces irritability. (It's ideal if your stress is caused by time pressure because according to the famous Kinsey report, 75 per cent of men finish within two minutes!)
  • try a complementary therapy - many are ideal stress-busters. Aromatherapy massage, for example, uses essential oils and your sense of smell to relax you. Get a friend or lover to give you a massage at home - warm hands and a soft touch are all that is required. Or try reflexology which involves gentle pressure to the feet.
  • learn to think of nothing - lie flat on your back and working up from your feet, tense each muscle group in turn for about five seconds and then relax them for ten. Move slowly up your body finishing with your face, mouth and eyes. Now relax, concentrating on breathing deeply and enjoying the quietness.
  • have a nice cuppa - if all else fails have a cup of tea with a choccie biccie. Tea and dark chocolate are good sources of the flavonoids which prevent heart disease and cancer.
Who can help me at work?

The best bet is probably your trade union representative or a work mate. Join the union (everyone has the right to join) if you haven't already. As with all problems, it's important to talk about them. At work, you may need to choose who you talk more carefully. If you can't talk to your boss it is his or her problem - it's a sign they are a poor manager - rather than yours.

Before you talk to someone, think about what specifically the problem is and make some notes about what you're going to say. Concentrate on talking about the problem rather the individuals who might be causing it. Don't lose your temper or approach your boss while you're still angry.

Where can I read more?