Ergonomic support and engagement for virtual work

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Ergonomics includes an entire field of research studying people and their work environments as well a host of businesses employing ergonomists and suppliers to design and/or modify work environments to best fit the workers and to reduce any discomfort and risk of injury due to a workstation. The shift to increased virtual working situations opened up opportunities for more organizations to further support and engage with their employees through considering healthy ergonomic home spaces. From the height of the computer screen and chair to walking and sitting breaks throughout the day, it is encouraged that folks maintain healthy posture and move throughout the day: think every 30 – 60 minutes.

Ergonomics further explained

The word ergonomics means “the science of work” and applies theory, principles, data, and methods to design with the purpose of improving well-being and productivity. The terms ergonomics and human factors (HF/E) are often used interchangeably. There are three main characteristics: the force required to complete a task, awkward or static working postures adopted in completing a task, and the repetitiveness of a task. Ergonomics also takes into account physical, cognitive, sociotechnical, organizational, and environmental factors (Figure 1) and the interactions between workers, the environment, tools, products, equipment, and technology.

Figure 1: Factors of ergonomics


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Especially if working on a computer, ergonomics can be categorized into two areas: work stations and breaks from these work stations. Prolonged sitting, or staying in any position for an extended period of time, and repetitive use of the same muscles can be harmful. Therefore, it is recommended to take multiple kinds of breaks. Screen breaks: every 20 minutes workers should focus on something more than 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds to allow the muscles inside the eye to relax. Position breaks: or, micro-breaks, should be about two minutes every 30 – 60 minutes to allow workers to change how they are positioned and using their muscles. This can mean resting hands from typing  or standing up. The point is to move around whiling switching to a different task like a phone call or getting water. Exercise breaks: workers should take a quick walk or stretch to relieve muscle fatigue every hour or two.

Ergonomic products and applications can prompt workers to take the breaks needed. Sitting on exercise balls, sit-to-stand desks, cycling desks, and treadmill desks can help promote proper posture and enable microbreaks while continuing work. The employee and employer should work together ensure the products selected are evidence-based and back the manufacturer’s claims before investing in these products. Each product should also be tailored to each employee to ensure the comfort, health, and safety of each worker.

Benefits of ergonomics

When employees believe their health and safety are supported, they tend to be more invested and present. The actual health and wellness benefits are also proven to improve productivity and reduce costs. The cost benefits (Figure 2) and economic health of organizations that invest in ergonomics are backed in data. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries reviewed 250 ergonomics case studies finding clear cost benefits through direct costs in reduced workers compensation to the tune of 68%, a 25% increase in productivity, 67% average reduction in errors, and indirect costs can be up to twenty times the direct cost of an injury. The study also found 75% reduction in lost workdays, and a 43% decrease in labor costs. Payback periods for investments in ergonomics interventions were typically less than one year.

Figure 2: Cost benefits of ergonomics


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How to support and engage employees in ergonomics

Engaging in and ensuring employee health and safety not only increases moral, it reduces fatigue and discomfort resulting in 48% average reduction in employee turnover and 58% average reduction in employee absenteeism. So…

1) Start the conversation. Communicate the recommendations - some of which are from the CDC.  Send out an email introducing the idea, hold round table conversations with experts available to answer questions, post in any social media platforms used, have early adopters share their story about creating and maintaining a healthy and safe working environment. Provide information and educate workers on the basics of ergonomics and how they are supported to help themselves.

2) Provide consultation and training regarding workstation selection and setup. An online self-assessment tool can help walk a worker through a self-evaluation and provide the user with recommendations to modify their workstation.

3) Partner with your office supply vendor as they may already have some of these product recommendations and evaluations provided online.


By Carissa Smock, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Health Services