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The Science of Caring: A Guide to Office Ergonomics

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The Parable of Workplace Efficiency

In the field of science that is focused on improving human performance there is a parable which describes the secret to workplace efficiency. In this parable, a company recruits a human efficiency specialist to consult on how to improve performance and efficiency in their customer support office. The specialist noticed the dim lighting in the office and suggested that it be turned up, so the employees could see better. Sure enough the next week the company noticed greater productivity in the office, but as the weeks went on they noticed the performance dropping off once again. The specialist then suggested the lights be dimmed, so the light wouldn’t be so hard on their eyes. And once again, the productivity of the office went up.

The moral of the story is this: whether it be a corporate office on the 15th floor or a large scale assembly crew in a warehouse–the oldest trick in the book still applies, that is, if your employees believe that their employer cares about them and that the employer will make changes to benefit them, then their quality of work will improve. Like any parable of course this one is somewhat lacking, but in essence it explains the core of what professionals try to accomplish in the field of ergonomics–to improve office cohesion and productivity.

What is Ergonomics?

The U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines ergonomics as the process of designing the workplace and tasks to fit the capabilities of the working population. It is a relentless pursuit and continuous effort to design the workplace for what people do well, and design against what people do not do well, thereby creating a job that matches the employee and vice versa. The mission of this pursuit is to ultimately improve human efficiency of employees while also elevating their sense of fulfillment in accomplishing work.

Unfortunately, ergonomics is often asymmetrically by larger companies. That is, they will view ergonomics as a tool to improve productivity and protect the bottom line with little consideration for the other half of the picture, employee satisfaction. That is, however, a debate for another time. This focus of this article will instead be placed on ergonomic tips with employee wellbeing in mind.

7 Actionable Tips for Improving Ergonomics of Daily Work

1.  Practice Good Posture: Anyone who has attended a workplace efficiency seminar will recognize this tip immediately. While it may be beating a dead horse to bring this one up, no guide to ergonomics would be complete without it. Your posture–good or bad–is determined in the micro habits of day-to-day living over a long period of time. For most Americans their job represents the most consistent habits of physical activity (such as sitting in a cubicle or bending over to work on a car’s engine). Thus to encourage long term health it is important to practice good posture. Here’s some quick tips for maintaining good posture while working at a computer desk all day.

  • Eyes should be level with the top of your computer screen.
  • Arms should be parallel to the ground and resting on a surface.
  • Shoulders should be relaxed and low, not high or bunched up.
  • Sit close enough to your computer that you can easily reach your keyboard with your elbows bent at about a 90 degree angle.
  • Feet should be flat on the floor, knees bent at a 90 degree angle.
  • Your body weight should be evenly distributed between your left and right side; while it may be tempting to lean on one arm this causes your spine to curve and can be damaging if this becomes a long term habit.

2. Take Plenty of Breaks: Repeating the same movements can cause a strain on your body, so be sure to break up tasks–even if it’s just sitting at the computer–with numerous breaks where you stretch out your tendons and muscle groups that are involved in your daily tasks. If you’re sitting and working at your desk, then it’s important periodically stand up and stretch your legs, arms, and backs. Experts suggest a 5 min break for every 90 min of working.

3. Lift with Your Knees: This tip is for anyone working in a manual labor industry, or any professional who finds themselves tasked with occasional lifting in the office. It is crucial to lift heavier weight with your knees and not with the muscles in your back which are easily strained and easily injured. As many workers have undoubtedly found out the hard way, a back injury can be a death sentence to any manual labor profession–or any job that involves moving for that matter.

4. Get a Good Chair: One of the best investments for improving office ergonomics is to invest in a good char. A good chair contributes to better posture and comfort for office workers throughout the day, which can be absolutely crucial if they spend their entire day in their chairs. The best chairs have adjustable height and arm rests, as well as lumbar support and seat pan sizing options. While it may take more time to find the right chair for the employee, it is important to do the research in order to determine what products best fits the needs of the individual.

5. Avoid Eye Strain: Eyestrain is one of the most common difficulties reported by office workers. Low resolution monitors, sun glare, or flickering monitors can all cause eye strain. To lessen the strain of working on a screen all day, make sure to remove any glare from sunlight and to make sure you are facing your screen directly–not viewing it from an angle.

6. Maintain a Relaxed Workplace: A productive workplace does not have to be a stressful workplace. Studies indicate that while 40% of workers report their workplace to be stressful or very stressful, stress has a negative effect on productivity and employee wellbeing–thus making stress one of the great enemies of ergonomics, since it works against both of its main objectives. Providing a stress free environment will involve knowing you employees, because what one person finds stressful might be the total opposite of what his or her coworker find stressful.

A universally accepted method for providing a stress reliever, however, is to provide a break room that is strictly for rest. Some companies have instituted rules to make their break rooms a quiet space to avoid it simply becoming office hang out. Quiet rooms have shown some benefit in lowering stress and encouraging stress relieving activities like meditation, stretching, or even naps–if the company policy allows it.

7. Demonstrate Manager Engagement and Employee Involvement: The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety reports that one of the most crucial aspects of improving employee wellbeing and office productivity is to demonstrate office collaboration within the organizational hierarchy. As discussed in the introduction–when employees feel that they are valued, heard, and considered by management–productivity then soars.

One suggestion the Institute offers is to involve the employees in a collaboration for reporting and solving officeplace problems. By allowing employees to give feedback, they are simultaneously involved in a process which allows them to be heard, offer solutions, and collaborate with individuals who work in other areas and might otherwise not interact professionally. This creates office cohesion, which is the end all be all of pursuits in ergonomics.