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The real impact of bad ergonomics in the office

Ever get irritated after sitting in an uncomfortable office chair for too long? Or maybe you’ve tried working in a coffee shop only to realize sitting on a stool for hours is less than ideal.

It comes down to ergonomics. And beyond the physical discomfort of back pain and neck strain, bad ergonomics in the workplace can be a serious sink on your wellbeing and ability to be productive.

Collectively, companies in the United States spend a billion dollars a week to deal with workers’ compensation due to injuries that stem from poor ergonomics. Sound extreme? It’s not. The average person spends more than 2,000 hours a year at the office. You can do a surprising amount of damage to yourself in that amount of time.

To learn more about the impact of bad ergonomics in the workplace and how to avoid them, we reached out to Dr. Alan Hedge, an expert on workplace design and ergonomics at Cornell University and the editor of Ergonomic Workplace Design for Health, Wellness, and Productivity.

Step #1: Getting the workstation just right

When it comes to workplace design, you can have the most Instagrammable office around — but if you don’t get the workstation right, you’re missing the mark.

“As soon as you start to sit down to work, ergonomics becomes vital in optimizing the workplace design,” Dr. Hedge tells us. “You can go into any Starbucks and see people with laptops and tablets hunched over their tables. If they’re going to do that for any length of time, you know they’re probably not going to feel great.”

Ideally, you want a desk and chair setup you can adjust to best fit your height, posture and working style. The typical height of a desk is about 30 inches from the ground. Yet, this is better fitted to someone who’s over six feet tall.

“When the working height is too high, the employee will adopt a posture where the wrists are extended when keyboarding, the neck is extended, shoulders are hunched and back is flexed forward off the chair,” according to The Globe and the Mail.

Beyond having a height adjustable workstation, it’s also good to ensure you have firm lumbar support. While most people don’t sit back in their chair when they work, it’s far better for your long-term health to do so, Dr. Hedge says. When you sit back in your chair, you take pressure off your spine and instead allow the seat to support you.

“What employees are sitting on, what desks they have, how much they’re sitting or standing or moving — these things directly impact someone’s wellbeing and they directly impact the bottom line for companies,” Dr. Hedge says.

The Key Takeaway

It’s OK to demand a comfortable workstation. And it’s OK to put a premium on having quality furniture. It’s good for your long-term health and studies show that “ergonomic investments yield as much as a 10-to-1 return on investment,” according to the New York Times. 

Step #2: It’s not just your desk — it’s the entire office

The workstation might be the central place most people work but in today’s workspaces it’s far from the only place people go to work.

It’s no secret that today’s technologies allow you to work just about anywhere. “What that means in a company is you have to think of your entire space as a workspace,” Dr. Hedge says. “It’s not just the workstation, which is critical enough to get right from an ergonomic point of view — it’s the whole building.”

Companies are now creating a variety of workspaces throughout their offices that range from workstations to lounges to café seating options. Research shows that offering a variety of workspaces and encouraging movement in the office can help foster improved productivity and employee satisfaction.

“You want people to do work and move around,” Cornell’s Dr. Hedge says. “Whether it’s a library or lounge within a building or a café space within a building, a quiet room, a meeting room, more open areas — the variety is great. But you have to think through what technology someone might be using and how do you make sure the ergonomic design of that work area is optimal for that technology.”

A small focus room, for instance, should have a desk and chair well suited for people using a laptop or taking notes. A lounge, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly need a desk.

The Key Takeaway

Workplace ergonomics go beyond the desk and extend to the entire building. Successful companies offer their employees a variety of thoughtful spaces to work in and pay attention to ensuring each has comfortable furniture and an appropriate design to bolster productivity.

Step #3: Encourage movement around the workplace

Whether it’s your Apple Watch telling you to stand up and move around or the latest headline touting the health benefits of taking the stairs, there’s a big trend towards promoting movement in the office.

The World Health Organization has listed a lack of physical activity as the fourth leading cause of mortality. Despite this, 80% of workers in the United States have a job that requires little to no physical activity.

“From a physiological standpoint, we now have data now from several studies that show the ideal work pattern is 20 minutes of sitting down, eight minutes of standing and working, and two minutes of stretching and moving. You’d ideally repeat this throughout the day,” Dr. Hedge says.

Height adjustable, sit-stand desks have emerged as one of the more popular ways to encourage this type of ergonomic behavior. These desks do have significant ergonomic benefits — when they’re used.

“Research shows that typically within a year only 10% of people use these desks,” Cornell’s Dr. Hedge says. “In other words, you can’t just buy someone a sit-stand desk and say job done. You have to reinforce it, so you get behavior change.”  

It also pays to reinforce other healthy workplace behaviors such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. “You don’t have to walk up the stairs of the Empire State Building,” Dr. Hedge says, “but walking up and down stairs is great for burning calories and helping you strengthen your muscles as well as improving circulation and productivity.”

Some companies have focused on building workplaces with nearby nature trails and walkable amenities to help encourage physical movement. Others have taken to adopting employee wellness programs with on-site gyms, yoga classes and training sessions.

“Ultimately, you want people to be able to move around and work their own way,” Dr. Hedge says. “It makes for happier and healthier employees.”

The Key Takeaway

Moving at the office is a great way to improve circulation and health, bolster your productivity and overall wellness. Look for furniture like sit-stand desks as well as building designs that give you a flexibility to work in different areas. It’s also important to look into nearby walkable amenities and trails as well as on-site fitness centers.

The bottom line

From back pain to neck strain, bad ergonomics in the workplace is something everyone has experienced. But too often, we’re quick to ignore these physical cues as we continue hunching over desks that are too tall — or too short — and tap away at our keyboards.

The best way workplace designers and companies can help employees be healthier and more productive, Dr. Hedge says, “is by paying deep attention to ergonomic design. There are now many studies that show the return on investment from ergonomic design in two ways: One is improving productivity and the other is improving the health of people by reducing injury cost.”

The bottom line: It’s OK to demand a comfortable workstation, a variety of places to work from and a workplace that encourages movement. It’s better for you — and what’s better for you is better for your company.

Looking for a better place to work? At Hana, we’re building premium flexible office spaces with a big focus on ergonomic comfort. Learn more today & drop us a line. 

Aug 23 2019

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