Employers have a duty of care to ensure their staff are looked after, so why is eye health often the lowest priority?
Despite the pervasive use of digital devices and increasing screen time both in the workplace and at home, provision of free eye tests for employees is not as common as you might hope.
Over the last five years or so, health and wellbeing has risen steadily up the executive agenda due to a growing awareness that fit and happy staff demonstrate higher levels of engagement and productivity.
But while providing them with everything from gym membership to mindfulness classes has become de rigueur, employee eyecare is all too often overlooked, particularly in the private sector.
In the public sector, on the other hand, health and safety personnel are starting to take much more interest, due to the potential for employee claims if it can be proven that existing work patterns, which include excessive screen time, are having a detrimental impact, explains Kevin Rogers, chief executive of health insurance provider Paycare.
Such fears are making themselves felt even though the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) attests that working at a computer screen neither causes permanent damage to eyes or eyesight nor makes existing defects worse.
What the HSE does acknowledge, however, is that long spells in front of a screen are visually demanding and can lead to computer vision syndrome, which includes tired, red eyes, temporary short-sightedness and headaches. It can also make individuals aware of eyesight problems that may have previously slipped their notice.
There is currently no standard definition in UK law of what constitutes excessive screen time, not least because the impact depends on variables, such as age, health and gender. But the issue is undoubtedly compounded by additional heavy screen use outside work, with some studies indicating the light from screens can even have a negative impact on sleep patterns.
Eye tests for employees is a good first step
Another significant problem is dry eyes, says Ali Mearza, director and founding partner at eyecare centre Ophthalmic Consultants of London. While people naturally blink 15 to 20 times a minute, when focusing on a screen, this figure drops to between one and three times a minute, which leads to eyes becoming irritated.
But eye problems also tend to be more marked among the increasing number of workers over the age of 40. Presbyopia is more common in older workers, for example, as the muscles of the eye weaken and lenses get stiffer, often leading to blurry near-vision as well as eye strain and headaches.
“This affects people’s concentration and general efficiency, but providing ideally annual eye tests for employees and a prescription for reading glasses can rectify the situation quite easily,” Mr Mearza advises.
For preventative healthcare reasons, he also recommends eye checks if individuals experience recurrent headaches as they could be a symptom of more serious conditions, such as type-2 diabetes.
But it is not just eye health that is affected by excessive screen time. Poor posture over prolonged periods can lead to a range of musculoskeletal issues, including neck and back strain, which are the second most common cause of sickness absence behind stress and mental health considerations in the UK.
Emma Bartlett, partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, says current health and safety legislation means employers have a duty of care to ensure their staff are fit for work. As a result, they need to assess whether desk areas that include screens are suitable for employee needs and take steps to reduce any potential health risks if not.
Employee eyecare as part of wellbeing program
But beyond these basic requirements, there are other simple steps employers can take to support better employee eyecare. For example, following the 20-20-20 rule – every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away – allows eye muscles temporarily to relax from having to focus intently, which guards against fatigue.
Toning down the brightness of computer screens can help. But encouraging staff to take regular five to ten-minute tea breaks away from their screen every hour or so can arguably be most beneficial. Doing so will not only help guard against eye problems, but also ensure employees gain some of the health benefits associated with movement and regular exercise.
For many organisations though, ensuring such health and wellbeing initiatives are taken seriously requires education, awareness-raising activities and sponsorship from the top.
Otherwise, says Mr Rogers: “Middle managers won’t feel encouraged to take action, particularly when they’re under pressure to deal with day-to-day business matters. Cultural change of this nature requires executives to lead by example as well as ensure there’s follow-up to see who’s doing it, what the benefits are and so on.”
And this kind of proactive preventative maintenance programme can reap big rewards. “Many organisations take their people for granted and continue to talk about low productivity while not taking their health and wellbeing seriously. But there’s a direct link between the two, so it’s about taking both ownership of this and positive action,” Mr Rogers concludes.