When employees are asked to describe their office space, “comfortable” may not be the first word that comes to mind. But a simple Google search for “smartphone pinky” or “sitting disease” shows why wellness directors need to take another look at the physical mechanics of how we work.
With work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs)—soft-tissue injuries affecting muscles, nerves, ligaments, and tendons—accounting for 33% of workplace injuries and illnesses in 2011, it’s important to recognize the effect our work environment has on our health. But what’s even more important is learning how to prevent these issues from becoming medical problems that decrease productivity and increase costs.
To learn more about ergonomics and its effect on employees’ health and wellness, we talked with Jen Kenny, an ergonomics consultant with WorkSafeNB and the secretary of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. She gave us her perspective on the biggest misconceptions about ergonomics and what employers and employees should do differently to protect their employees’ wellness.
Q: What, exactly, is ergonomics?
JK: Ergonomics focuses on refining product designs to optimize them for human use. It’s actually a very broad topic that includes physical, cognitive, and organizational aspects.
Most people already know about physical ergonomics, which is what I specialize in. Physical ergonomics is how physical and physiological work demands affect the body, and how adjustments to work demands can prevent injuries. So I look at things like repetitive motions, physical posture, keyboard design, the work environment, and overall workplace safety.
Cognitive ergonomics deals less with injury and more on human errors, like what shape a knob should be and in what direction it should turn, or how much force a keyboard needs for a response. It’s about making things more intuitive to prevent more errors.
For example, have you ever walked up to a door with a handle on it and you automatically tried to pull it, when you should really push it? That’s an example of poor cognitive ergonomics: You had bad signals. As they say in cognitive ergonomics, “If you need a sign, it’s not built right.”
Organizational ergonomics studies the workflow of an organization on a macro level and seeks to optimize organizational structures, policies, and processes. An organizational ergonomist might focus on work systems, teamwork, virtual organizations, and telework.
Q: What are some common myths about physical ergonomics in the office?
JK: One of the biggest things I wish people knew is that just because a product says it’s ergonomic, that doesn’t mean that it’s certified to BIFMA or ANSI standards—or that it’s truly ergonomic at all. Many manufacturers can and will put the ergonomic label on anything—from keyboards to beds—to make a sale.
The nonprofit American National Standards Institute (ANSI) works with standards developers to oversee the creation and implementation of norms and guidelines that affect the health and safety of employees and consumers.
Q: What do ergonomics professionals wish upper- and middle-management personnel knew about office ergonomics?
JK: Many people think being ergonomic requires a big investment, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. What I do encourage them to do is put money and consideration into chairs and desks. People use them for long periods of time, and not every chair and desk are created equal. Think of it like investing in a good mattress or a pair of shoes: They need to be comfortable, they need to fit the person, and they need to last.
So what happens if you buy a chair for your employees today that seems to have all the bells and whistles and certifications? If you forget to look at factors like the seat pan, and it ends up being too long for your shorter employees, the chair won’t be comfortable for them no matter how ergonomic it is.
When it comes to desks, I always recommend purchasing adjustable-height desks that accommodate shorter individuals. But here’s the catch: Like the chairs and seat pans, you have to ensure it can adjust to fit the people who will be using it. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to be helpful and it’s a wasted investment. Then employers have to invest in band-aid solutions—like footstools for too-tall desks—that tend to cause more problems than they solve.
Here’s a piece of good news: Not every ergonomic improvement has to involve money. But if you do have the financial resources for a good investment, put it into chairs and desks. The rest will fall into place.
Q: What effect can ergonomics have on workplace wellness?
JK: Although not every employee will develop an injury from poor ergonomics, many might feel a little uncomfortable or tired all the time. And when you’re not comfortable at your desk—your desk is too high or your monitors are above eye level—you’re just not going to be as productive or work at peak performance. And there’s a cumulative effect: The more small elements that are wrong, the bigger the overall negative effect is, until you have a workforce full of tired, achy people who just aren’t at their best.
Sometimes all it takes is a small correction to your work environment to eliminate the soreness you might feel in your neck or back or hands after a day of work.
Q: So, let’s talk about a time where proper ergonomics really made a difference for an employee.
JK: In one instance, an employee was working at a historic hotel in a very outdated office—they were using these beautiful, old historic desks that were made for writing, not for computer use. There was a woman with three phone books under her monitor who had to lean her head back while working on the computer. Now, monitors should be at eyeball height. Our eyes pan 15 degrees from horizontal, so if you put your monitor too high, you’ll end up tipping your head back to see everything, like she was doing.
Even though she worried it would be awkward, the employee removed the phone books and brought the monitor to the proper level. Fast forward about two months, and she reported she no longer had to go to physical therapy for neck and shoulder pain—it had completely gone away.
In another case, an administrative assistant was suffering from soreness and arthritis in her shoulder. After she made just a few simple changes to her keyboard, mouse layout, desk height, and chair, her pain level decreased significantly. In fact, she was able to stop taking pain medications and reduce the amount of physical therapy she needed.
Q: Is there anything employees can do on their own to counteract poor ergonomics?
JK: One simple thing they should be doing is routinely taking microbreaks. If they don’t change positions for extended periods of time, their blood flow decreases and they start to get drowsy. I challenge employees to stand up every 30 minutes to an hour to stretch or walk around to get that blood moving again and get refocused. Even if they feel like they’re in a groove and don’t want to stop what they’re doing, they should stand up. Those breaks are really important.
There are many downloadable programs that can alert employees when it’s time to get up and move around or that will gently remind them to correct their posture.
Another great way to make sure employees are getting up regularly is by drinking plenty of water. Not only is water good for the body, but the increased intake will also result in them getting up to refill their cups or to use the restroom.
Ergonomics = Wellness
Improving office ergonomics doesn’t just mean buying expensive chairs and distributing mouse pads with supportive wrist rests. It also means looking at potential risk factors, interviewing employees about their jobs, assessing job tasks, and creating individual ergonomics plans within employee wellness programs.
The result of these efforts? Happier, comfortable employees who are more productive, more efficient, and better equipped to do their jobs.
To learn more about health management in the workplace, watch our free webinar, “Shared Values and Shared Results: How Workplace Wellness Initiatives Are a Win-Win for Individuals and Organizations.” We’ll show you how to integrate changing social and medical expectations into your wellness programs and how to achieve successful outcomes.