The Physical Risks of Tech Work
When workers get hurt and are instantly pushed out for someone new and healthy, it’s easy to miss the number of people nursing chronic pain and injuries as a result of their jobs.
I’m twenty three years old, and my back may be damaged beyond repair. There are many jobs and extreme sports that are associated with this kind of injury; making video games isn’t typically one of them. Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent a fair share of my savings on doctor’s appointments, medicine and rehabilitation equipment. When I got the news that I was once again allowed to lift things – not heavy things, any thing – I couldn’t keep from crying.
But this isn’t my story. This is a story about the physical risks of working in the tech industry, and the lack of support offered to tech workers. In our industry, musculoskeletal disorders, repetitive stress injuries, neck and back pain, and many forms of headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome are so common that most tech workers either have their own home remedies, or doctors to recommend for any colleague who falls ill. Without treatment and proper care these injuries may cause permanent damage, but they have been normalized to the point where they are an expected part of the job, and thus not something that companies actively try to prevent, treat or provide support for. Even outside of creating new medical issues, hazardous workplace conditions, stressors and injuries contribute to the existing physical and mental health conditions of workers, and keep many of them from the field.
Although common, the extent and severity of these issues remain unknown. For one, tech workers are often treated as an expendable resource, where anyone who inconveniences the company is replaced. When workers get hurt and are instantly pushed out for someone new and healthy, it’s easy to miss the number of people nursing chronic pain and injuries as a result of their jobs. Further, few studies have been made on the subject, and what little statistics we have access to usually group most desk jobs together, not taking the unique working conditions of the tech and game industry into account. Meanwhile, stigma and fear of speaking out create a culture of silence around physical injury: in my recent preliminary survey on workplace hazards in the tech industry, I found that a majority of respondents chose to remain anonymous. In this article, I’ll present the results of this survey, as well as personal experiences and analysis, to explore how physical health issues associated with tech work are negatively affecting the lives and careers of so many.
Types of Physical Injury Reported
When asked what kind of injuries, chronic pain and illnesses they’ve encountered in association with their work in tech, many respondents to our survey reported similar experiences. They spoke of impaired vision; many forms of headaches, neck and back pain; carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries. One of the major themes was that workers tend to get temporary pains — such as injuring joints in their hands and wrists, back pain, and headaches — but due to the significant pressures and culture of overwork in tech, they do not get the time needed to recover. Instead. these injuries are allowed to worsen over time, and in many cases turn into severe, chronic pains. One respondent told us: “3 months ago, I injured the joint at the base of one of my pinkies, and it hasn’t been able to heal fully because typing is essential to my job.” Another spoke of developing an injury over a long time period: “I developed a repetitive strain injury a year ago because I neglected my hands, ignoring clear warning signs and building pain over the course of a year. My hands and wrists are in constant pain and have been for the last year.”
In my personal experience, my back issues started inconveniencing me about a year into my job at a fairly big game studio. It was clear that the issues stemmed from the fact that my desk and chair were meant for someone twice my size. But when I brought this up with my manager, I was quite literally told that I would get a chair and a desk that didn’t actively hurt me if my work was good enough. This in turn had me working longer hours in order to prove myself, eventually developing a serious back injury as a result. As my condition worsened, I was told that I’d never get full-time employment, and after almost two years of work my specific project employment came to an end, leaving me to search for treatment on my own.
Lack of Support
My story isn’t unusual: while all of these injuries are extremely common for tech workers, none of the workers we’ve talked to have been able to get compensation or support from their employer. “Conditions of employment and the narrowly-defined ‘injury’ policy to claim workman’s comp limit access to treatment and would put the expenses on me,” one respondent told us. Another described the risks of being an uninsured tech worker: “As a freelancer and then an immigrant with a status that didn’t afford me access to health care in the US, I was uninsured for a long period. My current location doesn’t provide specialized health care services to get this checked out.” But even a company providing insurance is in no way a guarantee of access to proper care; as another respondent explained: “I’ve been trying to find a therapist that will take this company’s insurance with no success for the past 4 months.”
In fact, few employers seem to consider these chronic conditions to be “injuries” at all, leaving it up to the workers to finance the care of injuries and conditions sustained or exacerbated by work. These treatments (chiropractic treatment & physiotherapy, for example) can be costly, and even if most tech workers can afford a couple of appointments, proper rehabilitation demands frequent sessions during a long period of time. One respondent noted, “The main limitation is that the cost for all body work, such as massage and chiropractic, has had to come out of my own pocket.” When left to pay for treatments, doctor’s visits and various medication on their own, it’s not surprising that many tech workers find it hard to imagine a continuing future in the industry: “I’m not looking forward to getting older. I regularly think about quitting and doing something else to prevent further pain,” one explained.
Impact Beyond the Workplace
Even though we see that physical injuries have a significant impact on tech worker’s experiences in the office, it’s not only careers that are affected. Everyday life is impacted, with many of our respondents telling us about how chores like folding laundry have become a time-consuming struggle, and how they’ve had to give up on their interests because they simply can’t keep up physically in the same way they used to.
One respondent told us: “I cannot sit without support for very long before my neck/shoulders/upper back begins to hurt and/or spasm, which means that I have to sit or lay down regularly. Since I prefer to be active in my free time (ex: biking, dancing), this can keep me from doing the things I like to do.” Another respondent addressed how injuries and pain have affected their hobbies and pursuits outside of work, requiring them to seek new activities and sports: “Every hobby I had involved my hands, from knitting to martial arts.” The toll of “time away from work/family for treatment” of work-associated injuries and conditions also has a significant impact on sufferers. They’re kept away from their relationships, children, friends and communities, effectively isolating them from their support systems.
We also see that anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions are commonly associated with chronic pain, and people living with pain usually report fatigue. Several of our respondents talked about how tired their situation has made them, and how the exhaustion makes it harder for them to try to get out of their current situation: “I come home and I’m tired. I’m too angry to apply to other jobs. It’s all I can do to eat,” said one. For many tech workers, there’s a “before” and “after”: once you have developed a chronic injury, there is no going back. “My RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) turned me into a machine that takes my current level of physical pain as its sole input, and computes my happiness directly from that”, one respondent described; while many companies see workplace injury as purely a function of employee efficacy, the human cost is both tangible and profound.
What We Should Do Differently
“Video game developers are very creative people, making very complex products, but in the end they’re just making video games. Do they really need to work under extreme conditions, or can we push for a climate that’s a little more humane and reasonable?”
– Johanna Weststar, DAN Management & Organizational Studies Professor, on the game industry’s reliance on crunch
As part of our survey, we asked respondents to talk about what needs to change to create safer and healthier work conditions. One major theme: Overtime needs to be limited. A respondent put it plainly: “Stop expecting people to live/breathe your company and culture. Be more supportive of balance and health.” It is impossible for tech workers to prioritize their health and simultaneously work 70-hour weeks. Frequent overtime causes severe physical and mental strain and increases the risk of injury, all while keeping workers contained at the office for long stretches of time. These conditions make work untenable and inaccessible not only for people who sustain injuries at work, but people who are managing other chronic conditions, pain, stress, disabilities and/or mental illness; as Melissa King highlights in the article The Sick Day that Never Ends: Capitalism’s Pricetag for the Disabled and Marginalized: “The prevalence of ‘crunch time’ at the end of a game development cycle, and its general acceptance as a normal part of being a game developer, is something that would be especially difficult for someone like me. It is already brutal for a neurotypical developer – I can easily see myself having an emotional collapse.”
Particularly, the massive demands on workers in tech and game development culture also limits their access to preventive and therapeutic activities, and makes it hard for them to seek treatment. Further, though tech companies conspire to keep workers in the office, they don’t invest in making those environments safer, more accessible or accommodating to the diverse physical needs of workers. For one, the need for ergonomic office equipment was universal amongst survey respondents; as one eloquently puts it: “Educate employees about correct ergonomics, and be proactive. Don’t require employees to request upgrades to their set-up (such as ergonomic keyboards, monitor stands, adjustable desks, etc), but rather make it clear that ergonomics and employee health are a priority for the company. Provide an ergonomic setup from day 1, or make it clear to employees that there is a budget earmarked for ergonomics that they not only can but SHOULD use. Otherwise, most employees will either a) not realize the importance, or b) fear that requesting an ergonomic setup will result in some kind of budgetary retribution, like not being allowed to attend a conference later in the year.”
In this vein, accommodations and accessibility must become part of the company ethos: providing ergonomic work areas, as well as accessibility tools such as dictation software, screen readers and other technologies will make our workplaces safer, more accommodating and more inclusive for not only workers dealing with chronic pain, stress and physical injuries, but with a variety of other needs and workstyles as well. As David Peter writes in “Building Accessibility Culture,” accessibility “must be part of every aspect of business, part of the minimally viable product, a core part of how we approach the launch and growth of our platforms…” and that includes our workplaces and their cultures themselves.
As part of this, workdays should allow for employees to take breaks, engage in various preventative and therapeutic exercises, or attend doctor’s appointments. This will make the culture not only kinder to people suffering from work-related conditions, injuries and disabilities, but also people with other disabilities, conditions, healthcare and/or caregiving needs. A main reason workers are hesitant to head out for exercise, physical therapy, meditation, stretching or other therapeutic activities, or otherwise seek out the treatment they need is because of how the time spent away from work will either come out of their paycheck, or have to be repaid through overtime. This effectively punishes those who attempt to take care of themselves, and promotes a company culture where employee health always comes last. It is vital that self care is encouraged, and not something employees are made to feel ashamed about or punished for.
With these severe workplace hazards, working in the tech industry becomes a question of how much strain your body can take, and how much pain you can put up with before you have no choice but to find another career path. Tech work is rarely looked at through this lens, though. It is mostly considered a career with very little movement involved, which in turn makes it seem like a fairly safe environment. That this assumption is completely flawed is rarely brought up, if at all.
It is unacceptable for companies to continue to ignore the risks and hazards that they continuously put workers through. We need to work to understand the frequency and severity of these conditions in our workforce; while small in sample size and no replacement for more formal research, our initial community survey, combined with experiences in the field suggest these problems are endemic. We need to define the common injuries, stressors and conditions in this line of work, and hold employers accountable when they fail to aid workers in preventing injuries or recovering from them. The chronic conditions that tech workers suffer need to be classified as injuries universally; companies should not be able to get out of compensating and supporting their employees on a technicality. Workplaces and work cultures must change to become safer, healthier and more accessible for workers with a wide variety of physical realities and requirements: we cannot be expected to be worked until we’re injured — perhaps permanently — and then spend what little money we earn on trying to recover.
An industry that tears us apart physically and mentally cannot turn around and claim to be blameless. Tech workers are not an expendable resource, and it’s reprehensible to treat us as such. Tech companies cannot demand endless loyalty and dedication, only to turn away from employees once they’ve been worked past the breaking point.