Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Health Symposium Recap: Musculoskeletal discomfort, physical activity, and remote work with Kaysey Aguilar, MPH, CHES

Health Symposium Recap: Musculoskeletal discomfort, physical activity, and workstation type: A follow-up study after long-term remote work with Kaysey Aguilar, MPH, CHES

The 2nd Annual Southwest Centers Occupational Health Research Symposium was held on June 10, 2022. The virtual event, a collaboration between the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH) and the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education (SW Ag Center). This series will highlight presentations made by Pilot Projects Research Training Awardees who were selected and awarded by the SWCOEH.

In Part II of our series, we discuss “Musculoskeletal discomfort, physical activity, and workstation type: A follow-up study after long-term remote work”. The study was led by Kaysey Aguilar, MPH, CHES, a Doctoral Candidate at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health.

“The SWCOEH Pilot Projects program is known for the groundbreaking pilot projects like Kaysey’s that have important implications,” said Jenil Patel, PhD, the Director of the Pilot Projects Research Training Program at the SWCOEH. “This study shows the importance of understanding the changing research needs in the field of occupational health. The entire workforce environment in the U.S, including most occupations and their respective workplaces, have observed rapid unexpected changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaysey’s findings through her pilot project add an important implication to the field of occupational health, suggesting the importance of how the rapidly evolving literature and educational resources on ergonomics and home workstation improvement have helped workers adapt to better work conditions at home. Amidst the pandemic, studies like these have helped enlighten employers on implementing workplace policies to improve the overall environment as the workers transition back to work in the office and workplace.” 

SWCOEH.org: What did you find most interesting about your study?

Kaysey Aguilar: “It was interesting that over a year of remote work did not appear to significantly change discomfort or habits. With remote work, individuals can customize their workspace to meet their physical needs better, but this isn't guaranteed; individuals could just as easily continue with the equipment and habits they have always had. The study results suggest that the opportunity to work from home will not automatically result in improved results for health or productivity. For workplace health and safety efforts, this could inform the development of education and outreach efforts for remote office workers.” 

Read Health Symposium Recap Part I: Physiological Measures of Habitual Sleep and Future Stress with Itamar Lerner, PhD

SWCOEH.org: Your study found a decrease in wrist and hand discomfort among participants between 2019 and 2021. What do you attribute the decreased discomfort to?

Kaysey Aguilar: “There could be so many reasons – more education on office ergonomics, acquisition of better office equipment, treatment of pain issues, etc. Of those reasons, the one I wonder about the most is the possibility that individuals obtained ergonomic education and equipment as a result of the pandemic. In 2020, when remote work increased, we saw so many articles online about how to design your remote workspace, items needed for remote work, and how to set up your space ergonomically. I'm wondering how much that impacted everyone. In the study survey, participants were asked if they sought out ergonomic education or if it was offered by their employer. It seems that if participants reported not receiving it from their employer, they reported seeking it out on their own. 

In short, I think the decrease in discomfort could be attributed to different causes, but I'm very curious as to how the transition to at-home work affected individuals' perception of how they could customize their workspace. With remote work, there's the possibility to create healthier spaces and habits, or to continue unhealthy ones. 

As a health educator, I'd like to understand why people sought ergonomics information on their own, which sources they found credible, and barriers or facilitators to improvement. Understanding these factors can help us to develop outreach and educational materials for remote workers, which will become more important with continued remote work in a post-pandemic workforce with a better understanding of office health and safety.”

SWCOEH.org: What other differences did you see in remote work vs. traditional work?

Kaysey Aguilar: “Between the first study in 2019 and the 2021 follow-up, more individuals used ergonomic office equipment. A few individuals had stopped using some of their equipment from 2019, but almost all reported still using their equipment or adding more equipment. I thought this was interesting. It could signal a greater openness to using ergonomic equipment and/or individuals seeing a benefit from the equipment.” 

SWCOEH.org: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Kaysey Aguilar: “I'm very grateful to SWCOEH for the funds that made this work possible. As I completed this project, I found that it was not just the research, but the people I met that made a difference to me. Conducting this research gave me the opportunity to meet with individuals who shared freely the musculoskeletal issues they or their loved ones had dealt with. Their stories emphasized the hurt and insidious nature of musculoskeletal discomfort and the importance of reducing it. It's easy to be in the classroom and feel somewhat detached from the people you want to help. Besides obtaining data, this grant allowed me to interact with workers and reminded me why I'm pursuing this field. Thank you, SWCOEH, for making that possible!”

The SWCOEH provides a variety of graduate-level training opportunities for occupational and environmental health professionals through our industrial hygiene, occupational and environmental medicine, occupational epidemiology, and Total Worker Health®.