Back in the office or at home, give this health issue urgent attention

Since COVID-19, we’ve spoken of few other health concerns. But whether employees are back in the office or still at home, their health needs action.

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‘Dangerous work’ probably brings to mind mining, seafaring or children scuttling under noisy machinery in Dickensian mills. While anyone would be grateful not to work in past employment conditions, computer work – whether in an office or at home – brings its own array of serious and disabling illnesses.

To illustrate the points in the 2019 report by behavioral futurist William Higham, The work colleague of the future, workplace products brand Fellowes built a life-size and uncanny human replica, Emma. Emma makes visual many conditions linked to office work, like swollen hands and feet, varicose veins and a permanent hunch.

Work colleague of the future ‘Emma’ shows what suffering from preventable conditions linked to the workplace may look like.

More important than her disturbing appearance, real-life Emma would suffer pain and struggle to do everyday things like exercise. The report talks about the incidence of repetitive strain injury (RSI,) diabetes and muscular-skeletal conditions. On the mental health side, there’s depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. The list goes on. And on.

The good news? There’s a lot business leaders can do to protect their workers from avoidable ill health. It starts with understanding how their work can affect employees – and the quality of their work.

Safeguarding your team’s health in the office and at home

Facebook’s human factors researcher Danny Nou explains why employee health and wellbeing – such as how the office environment affects them – must be a budget priority for any business. He draws on US psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous ‘hierarchy of needs.’ It demonstrates that to achieve what their job requires (for example, building relationships, generating ideas and completing tasks,) employees must first have their basic needs met.

Basic needs divide into two categories: First, physiological needs (rest, warmth and sustenance,) and then, safety and security. In other words, working in physical comfort and safety is a milestone businesses must meet before they can expect an employee do their best work.

Even back to the time of the aforementioned Dickensian mills, some employers understood the power – in business and society – of putting worker health and wellbeing first. Nowadays, ergonomics’ economics is even clearer. A third of all employment-related injury claims are for muscular-skeletal disorders linked to computer work. The US Institute of Medicine estimates office worker pain costs the US economy 297 billion dollars annually in lost productivity. And it’s a big factor in retaining staff, with 93 percent of tech industry employees saying they’ll stay longer at a company that has healthier workspaces.

When you understand you’re buying productivity, not office furniture, the costs of getting it right are negligible for medium- to large-sized businesses and many small businesses too.

Ergonomics assessments typically cost 250 to 450 US dollars per employee. Like nearly everything else, the industry has adapted to perform ergonomics assessments remotely in the age of COVID-19.

If you’re responsible for a team, talk with your human resources or personnel division to plan how to advise employees on making sure their workspace is safe and comfortable. Many government agencies responsible for labor or safety issue guidance for managers, such as the UK’s guidance on safely using visual display units (VDUs.)

The office of the future

The rising popularity of standing desks probably hasn’t escaped you. A recent review of evidence showed claims standing desks reduce obesity and heart disease can’t be substantiated, but they do reduce employee discomfort and in an office, encourage interaction. Some predict ‘desk and chair’-based office design will soon be history, including Dutch architecture firm RAAAF who designed a bizarre modernist-inspired future office they call, ‘The end of sitting.’

Ergonomics assessments are becoming increasingly high-tech. There’s wireless body-worn sensors to measure posture and muscle activity, alongside AI-assisted observation. At Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Dr. Liyun Yang has been looking into using ‘smart workwear’ for ergonomic assessment. Some of this smart workwear even gives real-time ‘vibrotactile’ feedback (vibrations that vary in speed, spacing and strength) to the employee.

But ergonomics specialists do more than recommend furniture.

Lighting, noise reduction and indoor ‘weather’ (temperature, humidity, draughts) are significant parts of the health picture, affecting people in ways less obvious than pain.

Enlightening daylight

The importance of lighting in employee productivity has come in for attention in recent years. New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Lighting Research Center conducted experiments with the US General Services Administration (GSA) and the US Department of State, finding daylight-mimicking light systems improved sleep and alertness, and reduced depression symptoms. City University London helpfully lays out the evidence and business case for ‘human-centric’ lighting, and how to implement it.

Warming up productivity

One of the benefits of many more people working from home is that optimizing office temperature is a tough problem. While optimum productivity is said to be reached at 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 22 degrees Celsius), women are more susceptible to feeling the cold. But that’s not why researchers Fan Zhang, Peter Hancock and Richard de Dear think ideal office temperature is a myth. They point to research showing employees are equally productive at a wider range of temperatures, and productivity’s stronger relationship with factors like workplace culture, workload and problems at home.

The researchers recommend setting office temperatures closer to the outdoor temperature while offering ‘personal comfort systems,’ or in other words, personal heaters and fans.

Breaking uncomfortable habits

It’s amazing, given its ubiquity in the mainstream office world, that some experts dispute the evidence ergonomics help prevent or reduce pain. Meanwhile, other popular solutions, like offering massage or yoga classes, carry virus transmission risks and are not culturally comfortable for all.

But another option for improving comfort while working is rapidly gaining fans. Developed in the 1890s by a Shakespearean actor, in 2008, ‘The Alexander Technique’ earned the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) support as a proven therapy for recurrent back pain.

We know ‘good posture’ can improve comfort, but what’s good posture? A singer, a ballroom dancer and a police officer will give you three different answers.

At its most basic, the Alexander Technique teaches good posture but holds that ‘trying’ to achieve a specific posture can cause pain and discomfort too. “Most people are either slumping, using the tailbone or back for support, or trying to sit up straight, and so pulling the sitting bones away from the chair seat,” says Switzerland-based Alexander Technique teacher Nadia Banna.
Nadia Banna
Nadia Banna, Alexander Technique teacher

So instead of emphasizing ‘one true way,’ the focus with Alexander Technique is on using thoughts to release tension. “The physical change is striking,” says Banna. “You’ll likely feel a strong contrast between the “before” – muscular tension in the neck, back and arms, and the “after” – the right amount of muscular tone spread through the body. There’s reduced physical strain, but people also find it gives them greater clarity in thought and action.”

Banna says businesses can incorporate Alexander Technique through single or regular group workshops, one-on-one sessions or regular, weekly classes. “It’s best learned through multiple experiences, but a single workshop can make a big difference.” Although the Alexander Technique is traditionally a method accompanied by minimal touch, teachers have adapted to the post-COVID-19 world, with many now offering online classes and resources.

Banna gives an example of a company that has made the Alexander Technique part of its everyday activity. “Swiss knife company Victorinox had great results when they hired an Alexander Technique instructor. Workers learned mostly in groups how to interrupt their patterns of tension and go through a sequence of rejuvenating activities. They also learned how to sit comfortably and how best to approach their work. After the initial education, the activity sequence was added two to three times daily, led by department heads. They saw immediate and long-term benefits.

Authors of the Alexander Technique studies published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on their findings, and participants on how the Alexander Technique helped them.

In the same way the Alexander Technique takes on the idea that simply ‘sitting up straight’ (however you do it) will solve discomfort, Banna thinks it can be unhelpful to assume your furniture is the problem. Her guide to ‘superbly comfortable sitting’ highlights it’s (mostly) not about your chair.

Taking control of your work health, wherever you are

Employees shouldn’t wait for employer initiatives to keep them comfortable and healthy at work, especially if they’re working from home. Kaspersky’s recent survey found one in four respondents working from home respondents didn’t have a separate workstation.

It’s worth reviewing the most up-to-date advice on how to set up a workspace for optimum comfort and concentration.

Offices for the ‘new normal’

Not everyone can work from home. Harvard’s assistant professor of public health Dr. Joseph G. Allen and urban resilience expert Dr. John D. Macomber, authors of Healthy buildings: How indoor spaces drive performance and productivity, have thought through what makes a healthy building in the age of COVID-19. They say the return to offices has made the importance of buildings more obvious. “Few… realized that their buildings could play a vital role in the health of their business. In response to COVID-19, that’s rapidly changing.”

They give practical ways of reducing transmission, like staggering employee arrival and departure times, and bigger picture ideas, like using Health Performance Indicators (HPIs) to measure the impact and value of your employee wellbeing strategy and building you work in.

Healthy workplaces are about more than ergonomic keyboards and standing desks. Health, rest and comfort are just some of your employees’ basic human needs. Without these strong foundations, staff cannot perform at their best. Leaders should prioritize employee wellbeing whether their team is at home or in the office. You will see proof of its worth if you measure your success on the way to a healthy, supported, pain-free workforce.

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About authors

Suraya Casey is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based in New Zealand. Her interests include cybersecurity, technology, climate, transport, healthcare and accessibility.