The pandemic has dramatically shifted the way we spend time online. Although staying connected to colleagues, friends and family online has never been more important, it means we’re spending far longer in front of our screens.
Even the shift to home-working has had an impact on the length of time we spend on our laptops. According to research by NordVPN, first published by Bloomberg, workers in the UK typically logged on for 11 hours a day in January, compared with nine hours before the pandemic. Overall, Brits have increased their working week by almost 25%.
A separate study of 2,000 workers, commissioned by The Office Group, found half said they had been working outside of their contractual hours since lockdown, with the average person putting an extra 59 hours – equivalent to seven working days – into their job over five months.
Not only is all this extra screen-time putting us at risk of burnout, it’s also affecting our eye health and leading to an increased risk of headaches and migraines too.
Computer Vision Syndrome, otherwise known as Digital Eye Strain, is now recognised as a valid eye condition related to the overuse of digital screens. According to research by Lenstore, 90% of people who spend three or more hours a day at a computer may be affected by the condition, which can lead to headaches, sore or itching eyes, difficulty focusing, dry eyes, blurred vision and increased sensitivity to light.
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Why home-working can increase eye strain
There are several key reasons why computer use strains our eyes more than reading from paper. First, we tend to blink less while using our laptops, which is how we moisten our eyes. Often, our devices may have glare or reflection which can be harsh on our eyes, or we might use devices with poor contrast between the text and the background.
During COVID-19, many home-workers have had to ‘make do’ with makeshift desks or have resorted to working from their sofas or beds. This can have an impact too, as viewing digital screens at a less than ideal distance or angle can affect our eyes too. Poor posture – being slumped over your computer for hours on end – can make things worse.
Working from home may also lead workers to take fewer breaks away from their laptops too. In an office environment, people are more likely to chat to co-workers in communal spaces or grab coffee together, giving them a much-needed computer break.
Without these opportunities in lockdown, the temptation is to continue working on our laptops. Our interactions and meetings with colleagues all take place online and our social lives now revolve around our laptops too.
How to reduce eye strain and headaches when working from home
A survey of 2,000 people by the College of Optometrists in 2020 found 32% of people believe that spending more time in front of screens has worsened their vision. This was a particular concern for those aged between 18 and 34, with 42% feeling screen time caused their vision to deteriorate.
Although eye strain is unlikely to cause any long-term issues, it can be uncomfortable and difficult to focus. “The research also showed us that many people believed that spending more time in front of screens has worsened their vision, although this may feel like eye strain it’s not likely to have a lasting impact and I would encourage you to follow our advice on avoiding eye strain if you are concerned,” says Dr Susan Blakeney FCOptom, clinical adviser for the College of Optometrists.
When using a computer there are a number of steps you can take to make it easier on your eyes. The College of Optometrists recommends applying the 20-20-20 rule to your working day to give your eye muscles a rest. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Try to blink regularly and position your screen so that it is between 40 and 75cm from your eyes. It should also be below the level of your eyes too. Increasing the size of the text on your screen can make it easier to see - meaning you have to strain less. Character size is an important factor because it determines the distance at which you view the monitor.
Although natural light at work can help boost our mood and wellbeing, it’s also important to check that there are no distracting reflections on the screen, such as from a window.