Feeling strain: New work arrangements, longer hours could be leading to extra injuries

Fueled by recent changes to the way people work, physical therapists are observing a steep increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for pain and injuries.

Jason Meyer, physical therapist and owner at Dubuque Physical Therapy, said his practice has seen a notable increase in patients over the past few months.

“It started increasing in May or June of this year and it has really been ramping up ever since,” he said. “From what we have heard, that is happening across the industry. You call any PT clinic and they are at a two or three weeks waiting period right now.”

Meyer believes the primary reason for the patient surge is a recent change in the way local residents are going about their work day, a shift fueled by an ongoing workforce shortage and an increase in remote working.

Issues with the labor force have proven to be a major concern for local companies. Unable to hire the additional workers they need, many have simply asked existing workers to log more hours.

“More people are working lots of overtime,” Meyer said. ”You’ve got people working 10 to 12 hours a day and it’s leading to higher injuries. It makes sense: When you’re at a job longer for longer periods of time, the body has less recovery time and a higher likelihood of work-related, repetitive overuse type of injuries.”

While some patients come to Meyer after sustaining work-related accidents, clients are more often attempting to treat something that resulted from overuse or repetitive trauma.

Extra hours can lead one down that path. For instance, an employee who once completed the same motion 250 times in an eight-hour day could be doing so in excess of 350 times if his or her hours have been extended.

Jason Putz, co-owner of Physical Therapy Solutions, has seen similar trends at his practice, which operates facilities in Dubuque, Dyersville and Manchester.

He explained that repetitive motion can take its toll on the human body — and he is seeing more workers under that strain recently.

“As we age, our tissue tends to change, and it’s not as elastic as it is when we’re younger, and so if you put more hours in of the same activity, you get dysfunctional tissue after a while and that catches up to you over time,” Putz said.

He has also worked with clients dealing with the effects of remote working, which became more prominent during the pandemic.

Without colleagues around them, or a physical workplace to go to, many are simply sitting still for longer periods.

“A lot of people who are used to getting up, moving around, and socializing during the day are now just sitting at their desk at home for the whole work day,” said Putz. “Those chronic postures and positions have caused problems.”

Meyer also observed that working from home has led to issues with some clients, noting that office equipment such as desks, chairs and computers are often ergonomically designed to mitigate such strains. Workers might not have such accommodations at home.

Those in the economic development realm are aware of the sweeping changes that have taken hold in recent years.

Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County Economic Development Corp., said he is continuing to hear from companies that need to hire additional employees but cannot find them. In many cases, that has compelled them to squeeze extra hours out of the ones they have.

“Overtime is the main thing I am hearing about, the main thing that they are using to get through it,” he said. “But this is causing concerns among employers and employees that it is going to burn them out.”

Realizing the need for a new solution, manufacturers are also looking increasingly toward automation as a way to add production without increasing manpower. They’re also seeking new ways to attract workers, including working with area prisons and attracting immigrants to town on work visas.

Brisbois also has seen the ongoing impact of remote working, which has remained prevalent longer than he had imagined.

“There are still a lot of people working from home,” he said. “There isn’t this big rush back to the office that a lot of people expected.”

He noted that many employers are now contemplating work-from-home arrangements as a long-term option after realizing it can save the company money and give workers more flexibility.