For employees, not having a well thought out workspace isn’t just a nuisance, it’s a pain – literally. Poor ergonomics in the workplace – whether that’s in a traditional office or a remote work set-up – can lead to backaches, sore wrists and repetitive strain injuries.
It’s an equal agony for employers. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most common type of work-related injury in Australia across all industries, accounting for 60% of all compensation claims. It’s estimated these injuries and corresponding costs are draining Australian businesses of more than $24 billion annually.
Having a thoughtfully-designed workspace not only reduces the occurrence of workplace MSDs, but also adds value when it comes to attracting and retaining employees – a particularly appealing notion at a time when research reveals 40% of the global workforce is considering a job change in the near future. Lowered productivity and high staff turnover hit your bottom line hard. Ergonomics may well be the solution.
Workplace ergonomics addresses the relationship between your employees and their physical environment in an attempt to reduce strain, fatigue and injuries – from slouching, twisting, reaching – by improving product design and workspace arrangements. Yes, it means having the right chair, keyboard and monitor, but it also means having essential equipment positioned in a way that identifies, acknowledges and best suits individual needs, according to their day-to-day tasks. This is the ‘bigger picture’, says Claire Folland, certified professional ergonomist at Alba Ergonomics. “People think ergonomics is just focused on not injuring yourself in the workplace,” Folland says. “But the ‘ergo’ part is more about making good work – it’s about creating a workplace that’s productive and efficient for the individual.”
Having supportive equipment is obviously important to workplace ergonomics. But before you rush out and buy the latest and greatest ergonomic chairs, standing desks and high-tech monitors for your employees, you need to understand who is using it – and how they are using it. “It’s not ergonomics until you know who is going to use it – you need to personalise each solution, and make sure each desk setup is fit for purpose,” says Folland. “What are your employees actually doing? Are they on keyboards at a call centre? Are they constantly teleconferencing? Do they need more breakout spaces for Zoom meetings and collaborative sessions? It’s important to have a good look at what each individual’s task is.” In addition to equipment, Folland says employers should consider ‘thermal comfort’ when it comes to wellbeing in the workplace, as well as movement. “External aggressors such as lighting, noise and air quality also need to be factored into the equation,” she adds. “You can have the fanciest equipment in the world, but if you’re sitting at it for eight hours, then a static, sedentary work and lifestyle seeps in. Encouraging frequent movement helps boost circulation, metabolism and productivity – it’s fantastic from a wellness point of view.”
Australia’s Work Health and Safety Act requires all employers to conduct a risk assessment to identify hazards – anything with the potential to cause bodily injury.
Above and beyond meeting workplace regulations, incorporating ergonomics into your workplace design can have a three-pronged effect on your business, employees and the planet.
It’s sustainable. If you design well, you don’t need to retro-fit. Which means you’re not buying, throwing out and replacing heaps of ergonomic office equipment each year.
It cuts costs. Since you’re not continually buying and replacing, it saves money. In turn, improved workstation setup will also help lower the likelihood of injured employees.
It makes for happy employees. An increase in workplace wellness leads on to enhanced productivity, increased retention rates and lower turnover.
“If you can design an ergonomic workspace that is ‘fit for purpose’, it not only reduces injuries, but is more comfortable for employees. And that means people are happier and more productive,” says Folland.
“It can also help with attracting and retaining employees. From an HR point of view, if your employees are more comfortable and autonomous, feel loved and cared for, and work in a pleasant environment, they are happier and more productive.”
In an ‘official’ office, equipment and settings can be controlled. But at a time when many people have adopted a hybrid work model and are working from anywhere, challenges can creep in for employers.
Folland says her team regularly performs ‘ergo-sweeps’ – both in offices or otherwise for those with flexible work arrangements – to talk to staff and find their workspace concerns. This not only identifies ergonomic issues that need to be addressed, but also reassures employees that management is dedicated to wellbeing in the workplace.
“People feel loved, cared for and valued,” Folland says. “This, in turn, strengthens employee loyalty and boosts productivity.”
Folland admits while there are challenges associated with today’s working from anywhere environment, that doesn’t mean you can’t support your staff ergonomically, wherever they are setting up shop. “Some companies opt to give employees a stipend, some offer assessments so we can advise what they should get. Whichever option you choose, you’re not only ensuring employee wellbeing, but also a healthy company culture.”