Resilience and ergonomics

by Tiffany Paczek
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Ensuring employee resilience and well-being requires an ergonomic work environment, not just offering company massages and counselling sessions, writes ALAN HEDGE.

Two of the biggest corporate buzzwords of the last five years have been well-being and resilience, with the importance of looking after employees’ mental health at long last acknowledged as not only sensible but vital for a thriving workplace. But all too often, resilience and wellness programs fail to include workplace ergonomics considerations, which can produce much greater returns on investment.

The concept of resilience is fairly straightforward. It means that people are able to bounce back from stressful situations. In the workplace today, with economic uncertainty and unemployment issues, we know that many people are experiencing significant stress at work.

Companies are great indicators of the economy. When it’s buoyant, life is good, but when it’s bad, life is not so good and employees need to be able to bounce back from that adversity.

Accordingly, many companies across the globe are investing in resilience programs to try and improve how individuals can deal with work-related stress.

And there are clearly financial imperatives for doing so. In Australia alone such problems account for around $11 billion a year in health-related costs. To put that into context, we’re looking at about a third of the country’s military budget.

Percentage wise, when it comes to people experiencing compensable problems, about five percent of all workplace injuries are stress- related ones.

So companies invest in their resilience programs because this is clearly an issue and a quantifiable one at that.

Components of resilience

There are three components to resilience. First is the cognitive one. People become stressed because of the amount of work they have to
do, or the nature of that work. Perhaps it’s the deadlines they have to meet or simply that, in a downturn, companies can be forced to retrench staff, which simply means a greater workload for the staff who are left behind. This is all part of the cognitive aspect of resilience.

Second is the emotional aspect, which relates to employees and their colleagues, how well they get on with their co-workers, their supervisors, their managers. If these are not good relationships, this causes an increasingly stressful work environment. This emotional component also relates to personal feelings of security. If an employee is worried that their job is insecure, this can have a ripple effect – what will it mean for family, for dependents, for the family home?

These two components are why many resiliency programs focus on the mental health aspect of work. But they either downplay or forget one very important component of resiliency…

The third aspect of resiliency

The neglected component is the physical environment. And this is where ergonomics comes into it because there is strong evidence to show that poor environmental conditions can be great stressors. Examples include a noisy environment, one that’s too hot or too cold, or too variable, one with really substandard lighting – too bright, too dim or very non-uniform. All such situations directly stress the body.

But of even greater importance to physical stresses are postural ones. If we go back to our beleaguered worker trying to keep on top of a much greater workload, the chances are that they are not paying attention to the way in which they are working. They are working long hours, and doing so in a really poor posture, in a badly designed environment.

Stress doesn’t cause musculoskeletal problems, but it does amplify them, because it tenses up the muscles, so that when a stressed employee is working in a poor posture they become injured more quickly.

Financial repercussions

If the mental health related costs are high, the physical ones are greater again. Work-related physical injuries amount to $61 billion a year in Australia. This figure is six times that of stress- related problems. It’s not five percent of workers reporting these issues, it’s 60 percent – 12 times as many people. Yet workplaces are setting up wellness programs or resiliency programs, often through the human resources department, but ergonomics can end up buried in health and safety. It’s forgotten about, when the reality is that an employee can be in the best of mental health, but if they’re working in an awkward posture, they are going to get injured.

Return on investment

There is now data revealing that, from a return on investment standpoint, it is much more effective to focus on the third component of resiliency. In the US there are companies running wellness and resiliency programs that tend to fall into one of two categories. There are the lifestyle programs, such as those that try and encourage participants to take more steps every day, to use the stairs, eat healthy food and drink more water etc. Such programs are likely to be popular.

Analysis shows that typically eight or nine out of 10 people in a company will sign up to such a program. But for every (US) dollar spent on these, there is a 50-cent return in terms of reductions in health costs.

The second category is disease management programs. This is where you may have employees with a chronic disease, such as type two diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Now what you’re trying to do is ensure that they take their medication regularly, that they look after themselves regularly, so that they maximise the chance that they’ll recover, or at least manage their chronic disease. Or the disease may be arthritis, for example, which affects musculoskeletal problems.

The take-up of people becoming involved in these sorts of programs is much lower – around 13 percent. This is probably because people see health as a personal issue, not a corporate one and they don’t necessarily want everyone to know about their health status or how they’re managing it.

So typically the return on investment for these programs is US$3.80 per dollar spent. There are benefits, but they’re not huge.

Then there is the field of proactive ergonomics. This is when environments are designed from scratch to provide the very best conditions for working effectively. And the return on investment in these initiatives is US$18 – for every dollar spent.

There is a tremendous return on investment because musculoskeletal problems are really expensive, not just in terms of the cost of the injury, but also due to the fact that as the injury develops, productivity is diminishing.

There are also people away from work with the injury, and perhaps the costs of any interventions may be surgical, and it becomes necessary to hire replacement workers. And good ergonomic designs can prevent musculoskeletal injuries.

Integration and beyond

This doesn’t mean that resiliency programs should only focus on the physical environment at the expense of mental health, but that the key is integration. Companies will have directors of wellness, but not directors of ergonomics, and the directors of wellness often don’t even consider the importance of ergonomics. Yet that’s where the majority of the injury costs are going to be felt by an organisation, and that gets amplified when you have an ageing workforce.

Also, because with no retirement age, people are expecting to continue working beyond age 65, and there are all kinds of biological changes that will naturally happen that you need to try and accommodate, and maybe even compensate for in the design of the environment. ●

Alan Hedge is a Professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University. He was visiting Australia and New Zealand on a speaking tour for Humanscale.

This article also appears in the August/September issue of Facility Management magazine.

Image: 123RF’s racorn ©

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