June 2017: Leveraging Technology To Improve Office Ergonomics
- Employers of all sizes, already feeling the costly sting of rising healthcare costs, know they’re facing added costs in 2017 with no relief in sight yet only a growing number have discovered how the success of their office ergonomics program will largely rest upon the keystone of its ability to create new improved employee behaviors of posture and pacing.
Of course, most employers today utilize adjustable workstation components and training, however, the challenge here is that it typically takes more than two months to form new behaviors (Lally Et Al, University London) and then ongoing coaching and cueing are required to make these new short-term habits into long term behaviors. For changing behavior, training alone has neither a statistically significant effect on health nor productivity (Robertson et al, of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety & Upjohn Institute).
There’s a further potent catalyst prompting adaptive change. On average, for every single dollar employers spend on direct worker medical or pharmacy costs, they need to add two to four dollars of health-related productivity costs to understand the true organizational impact. These completely unnecessary and wasteful costs manifest largely in the form of Presenteeism (see Addressing The High Cost of Discomfort On The Job).
Numerous studies have spotlighted the strong correlation between ergonomics and economics regarding healthcare over-utilization (see previous articles). Upon processing the connection, the central question of “How do we sustainably improve ergonomic behaviors throughout our organization?” intensifies.
Office ergonomics can be relatively low-hanging-fruit within employer health strategies. As employers assess their employee health strategies, they’re finding that some of their most compelling cost-savings opportunities can be found within the links between poor health, musculoskeletal disorders, healthcare over-utilization and impaired productivity. Even employers with elaborate office ergonomics programs already in place are always seeking new opportunities to strengthen and defensively harden their programs with innovative solutions.
In a previous article, we cited additional research showing that beyond common chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, a host of other chronic conditions – ranging from musculoskeletal pain, depression, and fatigue to anxiety and obesity – are the most significant drivers of total health related costs in the workplace today and will remain so in the foreseeable future.
The Front Line
- With great ergonomic strides having been made in materials handling, laboratories and general production, office ergonomics remains the highly charged and costly front line in the battle to reduce Cumulative Trauma Disorders (CTDs). Recent corporate injury data reveals that 95% of office environment injuries involve CTDs and office environments are quickly growing to be the largest single source of injuries within organizations.
While many broadly associate the acronym CTD with full-blown injuries, CTD prevalence in fact presents within a spectrum of fatigue, discomfort, and pain to reportable injury. It’s often incorrectly assumed that reportable injuries represent the costliest end of the spectrum on a pure dollar basis, when in fact recent studies and corporate data indicate that the highest costs, by orders of magnitude, come from the other end of the spectrum in pre-injury fatigue and discomfort. Of course, however, we all work to see reportable injuries reduced to zero.
It’s easier to understand how ergonomic-related healthcare utilization costs are staggering when reviewing recent studies analyzing annual total costs experienced for medical, pharmacy and productivity over thousands of employees. The studies provide strikingly similar conclusions: “Given the economic impact of chronic pain, employers should evaluate the potential benefits in productivity resulting from workplace initiatives such as ergonomic modifications, rest breaks, or discomfort management programs.“
- Direct medical costs for CTDs are significant; however indirect costs such as absenteeism, presenteeism, healthcare over-utilization and time required to research injuries can reach 10 times the medical costs or more. Moreover, indirect costs become direct costs for employers of pre-injury employees who endure unnecessary fatigue, discomfort and pain while working.
Over the past year, we have increasingly heard observations from our clients that, with employees bearing more and more of the costs of healthcare insurance and utilization, employees are becoming more and more reluctant to raise the discomfort, pain or injury flags until such a stage within the pathology of an injury where intervention costs are great and the likelihood of success is greatly diminished.
This type of environment compels pre-injury employees to feel they’re unable to take time off for health reasons and so they seek assistance from their healthcare providers to help them to work through the discomfort and pain.
Our clients tell us that among the top challenges facing organizations’ office ergonomics programs, the seven most prominent include:
- Ensuring consistency across the enterprise to ensure consistent predictable results
- Increasing awareness, explaining relevance and transferring knowledge
- Facilitation and encouragement of discomfort messaging for early intervention
- Assessing, prioritizing and managing risk within the organization
- Providing engineering solutions such as equipment (adjustable, encouraging neutral postures)
- Providing administrative solutions such as coaching and reinforcement tools to foster positive long-term behavior improvements
- Cost-effectiveness in implementation
While on the topic of challenges, quite prominent in the employer riskscape today is the ever-expanding list of locations from where employees can perform their work – primarily computer users. Telecommuters, where feasible, represent huge savings for both employers and employees.
Based on American Community Survey data, more than 3,000,000 people in the U.S. (not self-employed) now work from home between 73% and 100% of their time. WorldatWork estimates 16 million employees working from their home at least one day a month, which has increased over 60% from 2005 to 2010.
- Global Workplace Analytics reports: “While many conjectured that telecommuting would decline during the recession, it actually grew by 11.4% from 2008 to 2011. Based on current trends, with no growth acceleration, regular telecommuters will total 4.9 million by 2018, a 69% increase from the current level“.
What Can Technology Do For Us?
At a base level; “Office environment CTDs represent a prime area which we can leverage technology to cost-effectively and successfully prevent.”
Leveraging that base level; “Office environment CTDs represent a prime area where we can leverage technology to cost-effectively and sustainably impact presenteeism, healthcare over-utilization and release removable governors from computer-user productivity.“
Everyone’s aware of eLearning but did you know that the two primary flavors of office ergonomics technological solutions include web-based and computer-based tools? While each has its own values, the holistic and successful ergonomics platform perfectly blends the two together to provide the richest and most effective behavior change model.
Most commonly associated with eLearning, web-based tools contribute value through an employee’s Internet browser. Purely online systems, however, require employee forethought and action to launch and thus cannot drive the process of making good ergonomic behaviors automatic.
In fact, most web-based eLearning tools include follow-up management functions to press employees who ignore invitations to participate. The reason has nothing to do with employee apathy and instead centers on the employee’s personal reality which includes deadlines, stress, work requirements and other pressures. A different medium is required to effectively assist employees during work to help them learn to make good ergonomic behaviors automatic.
On the other hand, web-based delivery of information for knowledge transfer is an excellent cost-effective vehicle commonly associated with eLearning and self-assessments.
While web-based tools allow for simple centralization of eLearning and assessment data, web-based tools cannot observe the ergonomics of employee computer activity required to effectively produce a full model of risk throughout the enterprise.
- In any data-driven modeling of enterprise risk, one must consider quantified metrics fully covering the well-understood top computer-use risk factors, or hazards; awkward posture, recovery time, force, repetition, duration, contact stress and optics. Risk modeling which doesn’t cover the complete range of risk areas is simply incomplete and carries its own inherent risk because plans and actions may be formulated based on it.
Among the top IT best practices is Client-Server architecture where computer-based tools connect to web-based platforms in an automated background manner. State of the art systems design involves centralized administration of carefully blended computer-based and web-based tools where EH&S and Risk Management staff can simply and effectively model the enterprise from their Internet browser producing a hierarchical prioritization of existing risk beyond simple ergonomics management.
Providing real-time coaching for employee behaviors (e.g. neutral postures, stretching and micro-breaking for example) is the domain of computer-based tools.
The perfect analog to using computer-based tools can be found in automobile seat belt reminders. Many years ago, people were trained in Driver’s Education classes that it’s a vital best practice to wear their seat belts. Eventually it became law throughout the land, however, it was still discovered that providing training was not enough to effect a behavior change in drivers.
- Eventually, drivers were provided simple point-of-use tools to reinforce and foster the proper behaviors which came in the form of a reminder system. It was simple, effective and did in fact change the behavior of much of the population.
Carefully integrated computer-based tools, also known as desktop tools, ensure timely and relevant positive reinforcement for employees at the point of need at precisely the time of need, as their situation changes throughout their time working. Attempts to emulate this, perhaps with email reminders, are ineffective and fail in the long-term because they arrive unaware of the employee’s real-time situation upon receipt – which undercuts relevance, credibility and impact. Returning to our seat belt analog, with a web-based approach you would mail letters (or send emails) to people reminding them to wear their seat belts – which of course will not make good behaviors automatic.
Beyond how computer-based tools improve behaviors, ergonomics staff could never provide the level of observation and feedback across an enterprise which can be achieved through leveraging computer-based tools. It’s strictly a manpower equation. Thus leveraging office ergonomics technology extends the capabilities of an EH&S group to catch up to the real-time realm where the workflow already exists for computer users, at an insignificant cost of investment.
Unlike web-based tools, computer-based tools are available and active around the clock for employees regardless of location or Internet access and they enable 24/7 care of employees as well as 24/7 objective monitoring of risk throughout the enterprise.
Holistic Blended Solutions
In order to achieve a complete, holistic, sustainable and long-term solution, careful blending of web-based tools and computer-based tools is essential to address employee needs in real-time, to assist employees in learning to make good ergonomics behaviors automatic, and to comprehensively and completely model office ergonomics risk for the enterprise including all of the well-understood top computer-use risk factors, or hazards.
Containment, Empowerment and Excellence
Employers of any size can utilize strategies based on the relationship between health and productivity to lower health risks, reduce presenteeism and improve wellness and human performance – while reducing total health related costs, injury prevalence and costs.
Carefully blended solutions utilizing web-based and computer-based tools make quick work for EH&S staff in identifying employees in need throughout the enterprise regardless of if they are considered as belonging to high-risk or low-risk groups. No employee slips through the cracks because there are no cracks since it’s a holistic and consistent enterprise safety net.
Well-built office ergonomics platforms help employers more accurately monitor changing ergonomic risk conditions, identifying and prioritizing which have the greatest impact on fatigue, discomfort, injury potential, overall healthcare utilization and productivity at the present time.
Moreover, such platforms provide the ability to analyze enterprise risk over time and present a clear picture of risk trends which enable EH&S staff to stay ahead of the curve. With a well-designed office ergonomics platform in place, employers are best positioned to help their employees prevent or better manage these conditions on a long-term basis. These platforms extend both organizational knowledge and capabilities.
- Our clients tell us that, due to ErgoSuite’s gentle effective real-time reinforcement,
effective long-term employee empowerment at this level has never been possible
across the enterprise before and, contrary to wishful claims, is not equaled in any
other offering today.
Beyond ErgoSuite’s world-class training, assessment, workstation improvement and risk management tools, long-term positive behavior change will be effectively fostered with the right blend of web-based tools and computer-based tools working in unison. The attainable and essential core objective is to make good ergonomic behaviors automatic among employees.
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