The eyes have it - understanding the importance of eye health

01 February 2022

The College of Optometrists has dubbed it 'coronavision' and the charity Fight for Sight has warned that four out of 10 working adults have reported a deterioration in their eyesight because of soaring screen use.

The fact that, for many of us, the pandemic has largely been spent jumping from video call to video call, tapping away at our laptops from home, shopping online, bingeing on box sets, and interacting with loved ones via Zoom, means it is perhaps unsurprising that screen time has risen dramatically.

As the Fight for Sight poll found, 39% of respondents were now finding it harder to read as a result, 23% were reporting more headaches and migraines and 17% believed they now had poorer night vision.

This rising screen use was compounded over the past year by lengthening waiting times for opticians' appointments, people feeling reluctant to get tested for fear of catching Covid-19 and, with many people struggling financially, worries about the cost of getting checked out, especially if doing so was going to mean having to buy new glasses.

This is where insurance-based eyecare support and benefits packages can make a difference, or for some, understanding your employer's responsibilities.

Understanding digital eye strain (DES)

The symptoms of computer or digital eye strain include discomfort, headaches, sore or blurry eyes, watery or dry eyes, and potentially increased sensitivity to light. Most of the time, rest and getting away from the screen is the best answer.

Ensuring you are working in good lighting is also important (for example that there is not glare on the screen) but there are also various eye exercises you can do that may help. The RNIB suggests using the '20, 20, 20 rule', or taking a break from your screen of at least 20 seconds every 20 minutes, and to use it to look at least 20 feet away.

Here are some other tips to avoid DES:

  • Blink regularly.
  • Make sure your screen is between 40 to 75cm away, and eye level (looking up strains your eyes, but looking down will strain your neck and back).
  • Make your text size bigger to reduce the amount of work your eyes need to do to focus.
  • Make sure images and text on digital devices are sharp and in focus.
  • Make sure there's no flickering on your screen.
  • Adjust the brightness of your device to suit your environment. For example, if you're using a tablet in low light, reduce the brightness of your screen. Many devices have a 'night-time mode' you can switch it too.
  • Make sure your screen surfaces are clean.
  • Reduce any glare from sunlight or artificial light.
  • Use eye drops (artificial tears) if your eyes get dry.
  • Have an eye test every two years, even if you have no problems with your vision. Go for a test sooner if you notice changes in your vision or are having any problems.
  • If you’re prescribed glasses, make sure you wear them when advised to.

Understanding your employer's responsibilities

As the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) makes clear, the law states that an employer must arrange (and pay for) an eye test for display screen equipment (DSE) users if they ask for one and provide glasses if an employee needs them only for DSE use.

However, the fact so many of us are now also using screens and smartphones within our personal as well as our work lives has blurred the lines here, to the extent that some are now arguing that the regulations need updating. Employers must also assess DSE workstations and take steps to reduce any health risks.

When it comes to more conventional eye protection, the HSE again emphasises the importance of safety spectacles, goggles, face screens, face shields and visors to be worn when workers are working with chemicals, at risk of metal splashes, dust, projectiles, gas or vapour or radiation.

For outdoor workers (and important for anyone outside), it is important to have sunglasses that offer adequate ultraviolet (UV) protection. The best way to check this is look for a label on the glasses that says UV 400, which is the equivalent of 100% protection against UVA and UVB rays. Bear in mind, protecting your eyes from UV is important even on cloudy days, especially during the summer months.

Value of regular eye checks

As the NHS highlights, the value of making sure you regularly get your eyes checked goes well beyond simply being able to see properly.

Opticians can flag up the onset of conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, diabetes, brain tumours, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure.

The NHS recommends you should get your eyes tested every two years (more often if advised by your ophthalmic practitioner or optometrist). It can be a good idea to check whether you may be eligible for a free NHS eye test.

So, what can you expect when you do go for a routine eye test? As this guide from Specsavers explains, you will normally undergo a range of checks, including testing pressure inside each eye, your eye focus and the health of your pupils.

There will be a conversation about your current prescription (if you have one), any family history or genetic health history issues, such as glaucoma, and whether you have or are experiencing any issues with your vision.

Role of insurance-based eyecare

All of which brings us, finally, to the role and value of insurance-based provision around eyecare and eye health. A health cash plan allows you to claim back some of the costs of a number of routine health expenses, from dental check-ups and eye tests to physiotherapy sessions, for a regular, monthly premium.

As we've already highlighted, for employees and if you're using a screen for work your employer already has duty of care and a range of legal responsibilities. However, providing eyecare as a health benefit, perhaps as part of a Cash Plan (which may cover other areas such as dental health or physiotherapy) or simply within a wider suite of health or employee benefits or health insurance, can take a lot of the hesitancy or fear factor out of getting your eyes regularly checked out. Support can be offered in a variety of ways.

The key message through all of this, however, is don't turn a blind eye to your eye health, especially in our increasingly digitalised, screen-heavy world.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.