The advent of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has radically transformed the way we all live and work.
Within just two weeks, we’ve been quarantined to our homes. The new reality has quickly forced significant changes. The unknowns and worry of this global pandemic, the economic and financial uncertainties, new family routines and dynamics at home, and the lack of direct human contact are all new challenges we find ourselves facing.
A type of silver lining is the (new) technologies allowing for real-time connections and virtual meetings with people all around the world. For those who are fortunate to be digitally connected and able to work remotely, the internet, remote access and cloud-based technologies all access to work and resources wherever you are.
It is (too) easy to start checking the news and emails on your mobile from the moment you wake up. Your brain starts processing information and working immediately. Then you move to your laptop or VDU for another days’ work, focusing on the screen, including analysing data, writing content and having virtual meetings. At the same time, you’re switching frequently between your mobile phone or tablet and your VDU screen. And some of you are possibly home-schooling children or helping them with their work which may also include the use of screens and devices.
But the increased screen and device time has caused an increase in other challenges. Eyestrain, headaches, loss of focus, dry irritated eyes, burning eyes, tired eyes, blurred distance vision, neck and shoulder pain are all symptoms that have seemed to increase since the start of COIVD-19 and lockdown. In addition to increased and excessive screen time, those working from home can easily miss out on the daily exercise and sunlight they were experiencing on a normal commute into work. Several patients have also said that it has become too easy to work longer hours with more prolonged time in front of the screen due to the difficulty of ‘switching’ off as home and work are no longer physically separated.
70% of computer users in the UK regularly used to leave work at the end of the day suffering from one or more of these symptoms1. And now that most people are working from home, it’s quite likely that you may even be experiencing one of those symptoms while reading this article.
1 in 5 office workers admitted to making mistakes because of eyestrain1. 5% of workers confessed that eyestrain prevented them from effectively contributing to meetings1. Only 1 in 5 people said they take regular breaks from the screen3.
Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) is the condition that describes experiencing one or more of the symptoms above. It is caused by a variety of factors that are either internal, including a problem with the focusing of the eyes, an inability for the eyes to work together properly, and people blinking less when concentrating on a computer screen. Other factors are external, including a poorly situated screen with lots of glare from lights or windows, a screen that’s incorrectly positioned for the neck and shoulders, having too little contrast on the screen or an improper brightness setting. All of the symptoms are much more likely to occur if there is a high level of workload and stress, having to perform difficult tasks or if the time spent in front of the screen is too prolonged.
Eyestrain and computer vision syndrome shouldn’t cause permanent damage to the eyesight of adults. Rightly or wrongly, over 50% of employees attribute worsening eyesight to computer use1. It can, however, reduce productivity and employee well-being.
Normally, I would recommend heavy VDU users have a sight test and examination. However, this is not currently possible. Once the restrictions of COVID-19 are lifted, I recommend arranging a VDU specific sight test for anyone who uses screens and devices as the main way of getting work done. In addition to checking the health of the eyes, such tests also assess the need for glasses when using screens, how the eyes work together and the ability to maintain focus for screen-related tasks.
The Optometrist can then give specific, tailored advice to help relieve any symptoms of CVS, improve your performance when using screens and that means you can work more comfortably and effectively.
Until in-person sight tests are possible, the following advice should help to reduce symptoms and minimise the impact of using digital devices and screens.
Follow these tips below to help your look after eyes:
Top 7 tips for Computer/VDU users
- Take frequent breaks from sustained computer use. Follow the 20-20-20 rule; refocus your eyes to look at an object 20 feet away, for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Refocusing on a distant object relaxes the muscles and reduces the strain that leads to many of the symptoms. Every 50-60 minutes take a 10-minute break. If you can, get outdoors. Additionally, if you are responsible for arranging meetings and calls, do plan for breaks where attendees can spend some time away from the screen. Use timers and alarms on your devices to warn you when you’ve been sitting or working for too long in one sitting. Or if you are living with others, you can make this something you all help each other to do.
- Adjust the monitor/screen to the most relaxed position for the head and neck. This is about 10 to 20 degrees below eye-level. Eyelevel is where you can just look over the top of the monitor. You can take a ruler and angle it to check you have the right position. You should also optimise the screen to display letters at a comfortable font size, contrast and brightness.
- Adjust the lighting around the screen to reduce sources of glare reflecting off the screen. This is particularly important for windows where blinds may be necessary to reduce the sunlight reflecting off the screen. Glare can make it difficult to see and make the eyes feel very uncomfortable. When it does become darker, make sure the room is sufficiently well lit.
- Drink lots of water and remember to blink. Symptoms of dry, sore and burning eyes are very common among those who spend most of their time on screens or devices. We often suppress our blinking mechanism when absorbed in a busy activity, particularly on a screen. So when you take a break, practice blinking to help rehydrate your eyes. You could try leaving your water bottle further away from your desk so you have to go up and get some water, just like you would go to a water machine in the office. You can again set your ‘water timer’ if you are someone who forgets to hydrate which is easy to do when engrossed in video conferences and email.
- Work outdoors if you can: If you can take a call (safely and securely) from the garden or outdoor space, try and do that. Or if you need to read papers ahead of virtual meetings, do this outside too. Get some fresh air and sunlight at the same time. Some people also like to walk and take some of their daily exercise whilst joining calls. It has very quickly become more acceptable to be working from anywhere as long as the work gets done so help look after your eyes by working outside when you can do so. Getting good exercise is an essential part of self-care and will help to keep your eyes healthy too.
- Use your voice and your headphones: Use headphones or audio devices to give your eyes a break from the screen. Voice calls pre-existed the increased use of video conferencing so try and have a mixture of meetings and work using voice calls which don’t need you to look at a screen and video conferencing when this is the best medium. The evenings are also full of virtual events, whether for work or pleasure. Try and listen to podcasts or audiobooks to consume media, stories and information to give your eyes some rest. They need it.
- Have regular sight tests. When restrictions are lifted make sure you book in for a sight test if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above. This will identify the cause of any actual or potential eye-related problems when using a computer. Most employers pay for a regular sight test if you use a VDU regularly.
If you experience any symptoms that are causing you concern, please do speak to a professional.
- Accor services – Eyecare at work
- College of Optometrists
- The Eyecare Trust
- VDU Survey by Tickbox