When you hear the term “workplace wellness program,” what comes to mind? You may think of initiatives that include wellness assessments, fitness, nutrition, weight loss, smoking cessation or proactive disease management. While these are important factors to consider when planning a workplace wellness program, there is another important aspect of wellness that employers cannot forget to include: ergonomics.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) defines ergonomics as, “the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population.” Ergonomics are a way to address some of the biggest health problems in the workplace: work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s).
MSD’s can include:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Lower back injuries
- Muscle strains
The development of MSD’s results from small, repetitive stresses or static positioning which cause microscopic damage to the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments and tendons. While they will heal with rest, without rest problems such as pain, loss of function and macro-tissue damage can occur. It is the accumulation of these micro-traumas over time that are responsible for work-related MSD’s.
So, why care about employees and their risk of MSD’s? According to OSHA, lost or restricted work time is more often reported due to MSD’s caused by work. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says more than one-third of worker illness and injury cases are caused by work-related MSD’s. According to a commentary published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, those who use a mouse more than 20 hours per week are at risk for developing carpal tunnel and other upper extremity work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Increasing hours of computer use or starting a new job that requires high computer use are also associated with these problems.
By working to prevent MSD’s with a workplace ergonomics initiative, workers will be healthier, more productive and less likely to lose valuable work time. And ergonomics matter in the office environment as much as in industrial settings.
There are numerous ways to evaluate office ergonomics to best improve the health of your associates. Here are some of the aspects to consider when incorporating ergonomics into a workplace wellness program:
Workstation set-up – Seated work can reduce blood flow, irritate nerves and cause micro-trauma to muscle groups. Think about the following to improve the set-up:
Are all joints properly aligned?
Is the chair adjustable?
Is the back supported by the chair?
Is the computer monitor directly in front of the worker?
Sedentary nature of the job – Sitting literally is associated with premature death. Sitting more than four hours per day is as deleterious to the circulatory system as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. By incorporating movement into the workday, the result will be fewer work-related musculoskeletal disorders.
How to get employees moving? Two ways:
- Stretch breaks – The goal is to contract and stretch out the muscles for 15-30 seconds each. Every 15-30 minutes, one or two stretches should be performed. Try these:
- Chin tuck
- Neck side bend
- Shoulder blade squeeze
- Backward shoulder rolls
- Hip flexor and hamstring stretches
- Movement breaks – Get creative and get workers moving in order see increased productivity. Try encouraging:
- Reaching 10,000 steps per day
- Walking meetings
- Treadmill Desks
- Using a wireless telephone head set so you can pace/walk during calls
Do Workstation Adjustment and Exercises Really Work? Multiple studies suggest that they do. One of the earliest studies, published in Ergonomics in 1966, compared ten-minute rest breaks to ten-minute stretch breaks. This study found reduced general fatigue and eye fatigue, improved hand steadiness, increased productivity, and greater muscular strength with the stretch breaks. Another study, published by Jepsen and Thomsen in the Journal of Occupational Toxicology, shows stretching designed to improve the mobility of nerves at the shoulder and elbow, can reduce computer-related upper limb pain.
A study published in 2014 by Mehrparvar et al showed that both workstation adjustment and workplace stretching exercises reduce pain in office workers. A study published in 2011 by Mahmud et al showed significant improvements in workstation habits and a significant decrease in work-related musculoskeletal disorders among office workers who performed at least three hours of computer work a day and who participated in an ergonomics program that included both workstation adjustment and stretch breaks. A technical information paper published by The Hartford suggests the integration of these ergonomics and stretching programs as part of a key component in health promotion and wellness. As issues such as fatigue, discomfort and pain compound, worker performance (both productivity and quality) decreases.
By addressing issues such as a sedentary work environment or a workstation that has not been evaluated ergonomically as part of your workplace wellness program, employees will have decreased fatigue, decreased errors and decreased work-related MSD’s. This is a formula for increased productivity.