This post is inspired by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health’s investigation of the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Staten Island. With comfort being one of the eight Productivity Table Stakes™ in Productivity CPR™, my model for sustainable performance, it’s been a long-time concern of mine to support steady improvements in working conditions.
In the mid-’90s, I noticed several fellow employees walking around wearing wrist braces. It turns out the braces were to treat carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of intense and repetitive keyboard use at work. This was a few months after my own experience with a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD).
Unfortunately, when I was hired, HR had forgotten I was joining the company so instead of finding myself in an office, I was provided with a round table in a colleague’s larger than normal cubicle. I crafted financial reports for about eight hours every day at this round ‘desk’ which led me to develop debilitating rotator cuff tendinitis in my right shoulder. The injury prevented me from working for a few weeks to allow my shoulder to heal. I couldn’t sleep on my right side or carry any weight on my right shoulder for over two years. (Side note – this is when I learned to use a mouse with my non-dominant hand – a worthwhile exercise for everyone to give your dominant hand a break.)
Exercise: Hold your arms out in front of you for a minute. Soon you’ll start to feel your muscles fatigue and likely some pressure on your shoulders. Imagine eight hours of uncomfortable posture.
1. Provide the right equipment
As technology evolves and we learn more about human comfort, we can go further to provide furniture, accessories, lighting and environmental controls to make spaces even more comfortable. In the role I described above, I would have been much more comfortable with a desk fitted with a keyboard tray. Our joints need to be supported. Using a keyboard tray that accommodates a mouse to keep both the keyboard and mouse close at hand prevents reaching and wear on your shoulder.
While it’s easy to understand the potential for injuries related to physical labour, poor practices, equipment and cultures affect our ability to perform comfortably and sustainably in our offices as well. Also noted in the World Health Organization Key Facts on musculoskeletal conditions, lower back pain is the single leading cause of disability globally. (1) We know that we sit too much yet so many sedentary jobs still exist without the opportunity for sit-stand desks that invite movement and a change in posture.
We also need to pay more attention to lighting and noise. For years, over-lighting a space was naturally prohibitive due to cost. City bylaws in Toronto only provide minimal light levels. With the evolution of inexpensive LED lighting, we now need to consider spaces that are overlit, over-stimulating and ultimately exhausting.
Noise in open-concept offices is an issue not only for the workers. Have you ever been on the end of a customer service call in which you can hear the cacophony of other calls in the background? It’s a negative experience for customers, too. Too much noise is such a concern at work, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board built a new site dedicated to bringing attention to noise challenges at work. Check out www.toneitdown.ca for examples of noise issues. The site focuses on hearing loss, but neglects to talk about stress levels related to noise which are significant in their own right. (3)
2. Educate, educate!
Realizing the instances of MSD noted above, which caused pain and sometimes required time off or surgery to heal, were entirely preventable ignited my avid interest in ergonomics. From then I have been keen to make sure the tasks we take on are supported by the right tools and environments. I invited leadership to go further than providing tools they had wisely invested in and encourage employee education on how to best use them. It was as if we were in a relay race in which the baton wasn’t passed on effectively.
We’ve come a long way since the mid-90s, but there are still gaps. In August 2019, ‘The World Health Organization reported that “musculoskeletal conditions are the leading contributor to disability worldwide”.(1) More recently, a report from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health titled, “Pressure, Pain, and Productivity at Amazon” highlights a current example of recurring injuries. (2) The report explores the consequences of tasks completed in an environment in which some of the challenges are indeed acknowledged and given some proactive attention. Yet, even though we know what to do, why are we still getting hurt?
3. Culture matters
A critical partner to the environment in which we work is the culture. This appears to be an issue at Amazon. In an effort to meet the commitment to deliver products in near real-time, 80% of workers report being pressured to work harder or faster. Even if we know how to work safely, if there is pressure to perform, whether internal or external, chances are we may ignore the theory and succumb to what we feel pressured to do. We need leadership as role models. If not in example because their roles require a different physical construct, certainly in terms of the attention paid to staff and in an open concern for staff comfort. Comfort on the job needs to be perceived to be imp0rtant. In the absence of such positive influences, we need greater internal fortitude, even bravery to counter this pressure, take breaks, set boundaries, make time to move and to rest.
As consumers and workers, we might want to ask ourselves what we value. Is this pace necessary? Is what it costs worthwhile? Our culture of immediate gratification and speed is raising our collective cortisol while fattening fairly few wallets. Is the race to fulfill an order worth the possibility of long term physical damage?
What has been your experience with ergonomics at work? Has it got in your way? Have challenges been well-handled? Have you had to pivot? Share with me on twitter @streamlife.
I work with organizations to deliver sustainable performance. If you know of a forward-thinking company who wants to achieve objectives and help their leaders and teams avoid disengagement and burnout, book a Discovery Call to learn more about a range of engaging talks and effective coaching and consulting.