Think about how you feel during your workdays. Maybe you have pain in your neck or back and feel stiff and sore when you stand up from your desk. Perhaps fatigue and irritability set in as you try to focus on projects or meeting discussions.
While there are many factors that influence how we feel during the day, the configuration of your work area – the place where you spend most of your time working, has a major effect on our overall health and well-being.
Take a close look at your work area; the place where you spend the most time working. Now think about how you sit while working. Do your shoulders hunch forward? Is your keyboard so far from you that your arms are extended while typing? Is your chair so low that your low back is rounded over, or so high that your feet are not flat on the floor? Does the lighting seem either too bright or too dim? Do you use a sit-stand desk, but still feel fatigue, aches and stiffness during and after your work days?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, an ergonomic assessment of your workstation and a consultation that includes your work habits may help you develop a healthier work environment. Even better, an ergonomics program that uses a proactive risk management approach is more beneficial because potential injuries, along with their costs to both employer and employees, can be avoided when identified early.
The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”
That’s a pretty complex description, so put simply, ergonomics entails designing the workplace and the job to fit the person.
What can be done to lower risk of MSDs in the workplace
It is not enough to provide monitor risers, foot rests and other equipment, and allocating budget dollars to standing desks. The ergonomic approach should address the root cause of factors contributing to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Muscles, tendons (connect muscles to bones), ligaments (connect bones), joints, nerves, and blood vessels can be exposed to MSDs, which can include back, neck, and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries and more.
Your posture and postural habits, positioning and movements required to do the job, and frequency of breaks, are prime considerations for MSD risk beyond the workstation configuration. Providing personalized ergonomic assessments and necessary adjustments to all employees when hired will help to increase comfort and productivity while reducing pain and injury risk.
Sit, stand, sit/stand – What’s best?
Much has been written about excessive sitting during the workday, and the short- and long-term health effects of inactivity. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that sitting for long periods of time increases risk of early death. Other studies point to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, disc degeneration, and earlier symptoms of aging. A recent study found that excessive standing is also risky in terms of joint pain and heart disease risk. The logical choice is to alternate sitting and standing during the work day, minding your posture and incorporating stretches and movement. A good habit to form is to stand up and move for at least 30 seconds every 30 minutes.
For those having a standing or adjustable desk, the work surface should be aligned to the individual’s height, and other equipment is ergonomically correct. While you might be able to do many workstation adjustments on your own, working with a professional ergonomist can identify issues beyond your physical desk space that could be rectified for greater comfort. For those already having symptoms such as pain and stiffness, an ergonomist can help determine the causes and give specific recommendations. In any case, periods of standing should also be augmented with periodic movement.
Cost of work-related ergonomic injuries
One-third of all worker’s compensation claims are due to MSDS, which are the primary cause of pain and disability in the U.S. workplace. While many MSDs do not result in worker’s compensation claims, they may lead to higher medical costs as employees attempt to manage their pain and limitation. Reports by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration indicate that direct costs of MSDs to U.S. businesses are $20 billion a year, with total costs estimated to be between $45-54 billion. Total cost includes indirect costs such as lost productivity, quality of work, absenteeism, replacement employees, and lowered morale. These costs far outweigh the costs of preventive measures such as ergonomic programs.
An important contributor to employee engagement
In addition to mitigating risks of MSDs, a strong ergonomics program can increase employee satisfaction and engagement. When business leaders demonstrate concern for the well-being of employees, a culture supporting health behavior permeates the organization. Connecting health and wellness to corporate goals and to the organization’s mission sends a strong message that leaders want to maintain a positive work environment because they value people. Some of the most successful businesses are those that encourage employees to practice self-care during the work day, because they know that a healthy workforce is essential to the health of the organization.
When people have the opportunity to contribute to decisions on processes and projects, as well as to their own work, they are more likely to be committed to the organization. Ergonomics is a collaborative process, where ergonomists, safety managers, employees, leaders, and workplace designers work together to achieve a culture where people thrive. Investing in people and work spaces is a worthwhile business expenditure – one that will reap both financial and personal rewards.
Author Bio: Lisa Elsinger is a health promotion consultant with expertise in the design and implementation of workplace wellness and ergonomic initiatives. With a PhD in adult education, Lisa is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a conference presenter on topics related to health and well-being, teaching and learning, and active aging. Lisa is a 200RYT yoga instructor and an ACE certified group fitness instructor who emphasizes the value of self-care in all of her programs.
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Yours in health,