How to manage symptoms of eye strain when using Display Screen Equipment (DSE)

Asthenopia is the medical term for eye strain which is a common problem for some people who spend an increasing amount of time looking at a screen. Although one of the most common causes of eye strain is due to computer and digital screen use, other causes may be due to stress, fatigue, incorrect lighting, such as lights that are too bright or having to strain to read in very dim lighting.

Specsavers opticians reported that since March 2020 as many as 1 in 3 people have experienced a perceived deterioration in their eyesight as a consequence of increased screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition other causes of eye strain include reading for prolonged periods or driving without sufficient breaks to rest your eyes which can cause them to feel tired, dry, gritty and stressed.

Prolonged screen time can result in digital eye strain and sitting too close to a screen can put extra strain on the muscles of the eyes. This can result in symptoms oof headaches, sore, itchy, dry or tired eyes, blurred or double vision, difficult focusing and increased sensitivity to light.  Individuals may also experience symptoms of twitching eyelids and red watery eyes. Therefore, it is very important to ensure that employees are educated on the importance of good eye health.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a duty of care to their employees to protect their health. This can include ensuring employees undertake a Display Screen Equipment (DSE) workstation assessment to ensure a sound ergonomic set up. Employers must consider risks associated with DSE use for their employees who not only work at fixed workstations but those that work remotely or from home, across multiple locations (mobile workers) and those that follow a hot-desking model.

 Employers’ duties under the Display Screen Regulations 1992 are to protect employees from any harm or ill health that may occur as a direct result of working with DSE. These regulations apply to workers who use DSE daily, for continuous periods of an hour or more on a daily basis as part of their work and include the use of PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Employees have a duty to follow all health and safety training and guidance that their employer gives them. They should also make their employer aware of any risks or issues (e.g. eye strain or back pain) as soon as possible.

A DSE workstation assessment is usually undertaken when an employee commences employment and is completed via an online or paper questionnaire. Any areas of concern may require further input by a nominated DSE assessor or an Occupational Health Advisor to provide more specific advice to support the individual.  It is important to note that a DSE assessment should be a live document and may warrant review if there are any changes to an employee’s health and wellbeing or following a period of absence or ill health.

Alongside ensuring a good ergonomic set up to prevent any musculoskeletal health issues a DSE assessment also includes ensuring that the environment is at a comfortable temperature and noise level to undertake work and that the environmental lighting and that on the screen is sufficient. DSE assessments also include ensuring that the text is easy to read.

In order to help prevent eye issues caused by the use of DSEs, consideration should be given to the following when setting up a workstation, computer screens should be positioned to limit glare from overhead lights or sunlight. The screen should be positioned to slightly below eye level, as looking up at screens widens the eyes and can cause them to dry out quicker. The brightness of screens should be set as low as possible while remaining high enough that employees can still comfortably read text.

Whilst here is no reliable evidence that work with DSE causes any permanent damage to eyes or eyesight, it may make users with pre-existing vision defects more aware of them. This (and/or poor working conditions) may give some users temporary visual fatigue or headaches. Uncorrected vision defects can make work at display screens more tiring or stressful than it should be, and correcting defects can improve comfort, job satisfaction and performance.

Undertaking regular eye tests is beneficial for ensuring good eye health. Eye tests do not only identify if someone requires corrective lenses, but they can also identify many health conditions where little or no obvious symptoms are displayed. Conditions such as diabetes, brain tumours, heart disease such as indictors of high cholesterol, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure can all be identified at a routine eye test. It is generally recommended that everyone attends a routine eye examination every two years unless there is a need for more frequent reviews.

Employers have a legal duty to provide eye tests for employees that are DSE users if they ask for one and also pay for the eye tests. Depending on organisational policies, arrangements for employee DSE eye tests may vary. Some employers may prefer to arrange eye tests in house with a specified optician and pay for them directly or provide a voucher. Alternatively, some employees may arrange their own eyes test with their preferred provider as put in a request for reimbursement to their employer. Employers are only required to pay for glasses if these are specifically needed for the specific intermediate distance to enable the employee to view their screen comfortably. If a standard prescription is required, an employer does not have to pay for an employee’s glasses, however some employers may offer a voluntary contribution towards the cost of any prescription lenses.

The College of Optometrists advises that whenever possible, jobs at display screens should be designed to consist of a mix of screen-based and non-screen-based work to prevent fatigue and to vary visual and mental demands. Where the job unavoidably contains spells of intensive display screen work (whether using the keyboard or input device, reading the screen, or a mixture of the two), these should be broken up by periods of non-intensive, non-display screen work. Where work cannot be so organised, e.g. in jobs requiring only data or text entry requiring sustained attention and concentration, deliberate breaks or pauses must be introduced.

Although there is no direct guidance on how often breaks from the use of DSE work should be taken it is generally advised that short screen breaks at regular intervals is a good way to reduce the risk of eye strain. The ‘20-20-20 rule’ is a good routine to incorporate into DSE work and encourages the user to look up from their screen at something roughly 20 feet away for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes. Frequently practising this exercise, gives the DSE user’s eyes a chance to relax and prevent them from being strained. As time can sometimes run away and it is easy to work over and above 20 minutes without taking a break it can be useful to set reminders to take eye breaks at regular intervals throughout the day.

In addition to setting up an optimal workspace, employees can also take care of their eyes while using DSEs by ensuring they stay well hydrated as being dehydrated can cause the eyes to dry out. It is also important to be mindful of blinking, it is common for people to blink less when looking at screens. Blinking helps keep the eyes moist and oxygenated and helps clear away debris.