Tech blinders: Digital eye strain the new work challenge

It’s difficult to escape the clutches of digital devices. Technology has changed the way we do business, shop, receive information and entertain ourselves. Desktop and mobile device screens reach across all industries, accelerating consumer transactions and changing business operations. But that doesn’t necessarily mean technology is improving productivity on all fronts.

According to a Unum survey of roughly 1,300 people, 57% of U.S. adults spend eight or more hours a day looking at various digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and television screens. That includes 40% of respondents who reported spending 12 or more hours a day looking at digital devices.

That can spell bad news: According to the Vision Council, eye strain symptoms can occur when eyes are focused on a digital device for two or more consecutive hours per day. Given the amount of time reported looking at screens, it’s not surprising that many of the respondents reported symptoms of digital eye strain.

In the same poll, Unum found that 59% of respondents who used digital devices had experienced one or more symptoms of eye strain, including headache; increased sensitivity to light; blurred or double vision; sore neck, shoulders or back; and sore, tired, burning or itchy eyes.

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Attendees get a hands on look at the new Samsung Galaxy S4 mobile phone at Radio City Music Hall in New York, NY, Thursday, March 14, 2013. Photograph: Victor J. Blue

Eye strain symptoms such as headaches or difficulty concentrating can negatively affect a worker’s ability to complete a task. Research by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Optometry shows that computer vision syndrome and undetected vision problems correlate with a reduction in employee productivity. The UAB study found digital devices could significantly impact productivity, reducing performance by 20%.

However, the UAB study also found that productivity increases when employers make vision health a priority with efforts to reduce digital eye strain and by promoting vision health to workers. Here are some tips to help workers improve their vision, engagement and productivity.

Provide proper office lighting. Office lighting levels are often much too bright, and excessively bright fluorescent or LED light bulbs can cause visual fatigue. Providing appropriate ambient light that isn’t too bright or harsh helps prevent eye strain.

Employers also can position workspaces so they’re not directly in front of or behind a window, which causes a glare that makes eyes work harder. Computers and other digital screens should be positioned at a 90-degree angle to nearby windows.

Encourage vision breaks. Employers and management can play an important role in helping to reduce eye strain for workers by encouraging routine breaks from screens.

People blink about 14 times a minute on average, but spending significant time staring at screens can reduce a person’s blink rate by a third or even half, leading to problems with dry, itchy or burning eyes.

Experts recommend the 20/20/20 rule — every 20 minutes, take a vision break by shifting your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This practice reduces eye strain caused by prolonged use of screens and promotes good vision health.

Make sure you provide the right equipment. LCD monitors and anti-glare screen protectors can go a long way toward protecting eye health. The glass screens in many smartphones and laptops produce a strong glare that can be tough on eyes, but a matte filter can reduce this glare.

The blue light produced by modern electronic devices and LED lights is particularly harsh and prone to cause eye strain. Offering employees special glasses that reduce blue-light exposure can ease this issue.

Upgrading older equipment also can improve eye health. Old cathode ray tube monitors can cause a flicker. While the flicker seems imperceptible, it can still lead to eye strain and fatigue.

Encourage good eye posture. Computer screens should sit at eye level and 20 to 28 inches away from workers’ faces. One easy way to test this is for the user to put their arm out with their palm up. And remember that increasing the font size, rather than positioning the monitor closer to the user, also is a key way to reduce eye strain.

Put employees in control. Make sure your employees know how to adjust the brightness and/or contrast of their screens. Screens that are brighter than the surrounding light are more difficult to see, causing the eyes to strain.

There also are tools that can monitor and automatically reduce the brightness of a screen. F.lux, for example, is a free program that will gradually change the color of a display throughout the day to be appropriate for the surrounding lighting.

Prioritize vision health. Making vision health a priority at your organization is the most important thing you can do to improve your workforce’s vision. Eleven million Americans over age 12 need vision correction, although many of them are unaware of it, leading to increased problems with fatigue and digital eye strain.

Offer workers vision insurance and educate them about the importance of vision health and annual eye exams. Early diagnosis of vision issues leads to more effective treatment. And with a comprehensive vision exam, it's easier to find serious eye and general health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, glaucoma and cataracts.

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