April 2023: Empowering Office, Hybrid and Remote Knowledge Workers Today

Peter’s working diligently at his workstation.  He’s recently started noticing neck pain at the end of his days and sometimes notices his left wrist is tingling and numb although he’s determined to work through it until it passes.  Eventually, as the discomfort amplified far beyond Ibuprofen, he decided to take off of work and visit his doctor who prescribed a wrist brace and a much stronger anti-inflammatory.  Within a few short months, he required a specialist.

What risks do you see in the above picture which, if mitigated, would have very easily prevented the discomfort, stress, unnecessary healthcare consumption and loss of productivity?

It’s all too common to find employers of all sizes dutifully striving to help their knowledge workers with minimal numbers of safety professionals and resources, if any.  

While employer financial losses from avoidable risk exposures might have been tolerable or more likely less understood prior to this hyper-inflationary cycle of uncertainty, here in 2023 it’s a much different world for employers. 

Tracking unprecedented remote workforce changes over recent years, a wave of reports from workers’ compensation leaders, studies and large-scale surveys have called out how discomfort, employee healthcare consumption and injury case rates have outpaced the growth.  What were smaller, easier to absorb losses are now prominent, newly understood and impossible to ignore in these financial times.  

As if employers didn’t already have enough to manage, remote workers today have unprecedented opportunities of remote employment elsewhere.  In response, employers are actively protecting and expanding their Employee Value Proposition because it’s prohibitively expensive to replace expensively-trained good people leaving for preventable reasons.  In fact, prior to the Pandemic, a “competitor” was considered any organization competing with you for sales and market share.   Today in this hyper-inflationary cycle of uncertainty, “competitors” are additionally defined as any other organizations that can poach your employees – and they can be in any industry at all located anywhere in the world.  

Expanding on safety, already overworked safety professionals are also being tasked with ensuring the comfort of remote employees who are experiencing discomfort and stress well beyond historic highs.  Of course, seasoned safety professionals have long understood how comfort and safety have always been integral parts of the ergonomics equation.  The difference today which is enabling HSE, HR and CPO budgets to open up, is senior management’s bifurcated focus on reducing all avoidable losses and buttressing their Employee Value Proposition for employee retention.

While providing substantial benefits for both the employer and employees, remote computer work involves deleterious static postures for seemingly endless hours as the chronological lines between work time and home time have blurred. Even prior to this pandemic, the harmful effects of sedentary behavior had recently been red-flagged by the American Medical Association, World Health Organization, Health Safety Executive and National Institute of Health and other authorities who’ve each identified sedentary behaviors as a significant risk factor for serious negative health outcomes and financial loss for employers.  

This article in the New York Times “The Pandemic of Work-From-Home Injuries” and other similar articles report the growing number of people reporting discomfort and musculoskeletal injuries during the relatively short time they’ve been working remotely in their impromptu home-based offices.  These  injuries carry a very high price both for the employee and their employer.

From the Times article, “At first they felt only mild discomfort. Then, gradually, the pain sharpened. This is most commonly an ‘overuse injury’ that stems from repetitive trauma“, said Dr. Michael Fredericson, professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, adding, “It’s kind of like when a tire blows out on you. It wasn’t necessarily one incident; the tread was wearing down over time.

Mitigating this risk can be surprisingly straightforward using evidence-based science and methods, however, desired outcomes aren’t achieved unless the prescriptive guidance is forged into enduring improved behaviors.   

Best Practice Behaviors

At many times throughout our lives, each of us encounter situations where we’ll greatly benefit from improving our behaviors.  Specifically regarding employees working on computers, we understand, guided by more than 40 years of evidence-based science, that to work comfortably, safely and most productively we need to conduct our behaviors in known healthful ways including:

For professionals who’ve already been providing remote employees with training and
better adjustable furniture and equipment, kudos to you as your instincts and efforts are spot on as every remote employee can benefit from these pieces of the solution.

Applied Behavioral Analysis, however, teaches that there’s still one more integral piece required to bind these elements together to become an effective sustainable behavioral improvement and effectively mitigate the risk.

Improving Behaviors

Changing how people do something can appear simple on the surface.  So, why don’t we all simply, abruptly and forever change our behaviors after simply taking a course or being given information and told to do something?  As you would expect, there are reasons.

Let’s consider your car and driving safety as an example.  In the case of behaviors such as seat belt use in automobiles, in the distant past drivers learned seat belt safety behaviors from driver training courses and periodic reminders such as public service television commercials and print media notices.  It didn’t work and people were unnecessarily still getting injured where they wouldn’t otherwise be if they wore their seatbelts.

Taking a course, even with some number of periodic reminders in the mail afterwards had not changed people’s seat belt safety behaviors and so the problem had to be rethought.  Applied Behavioral Analysis was harnessed using Operant Conditioning (positive reinforcement) and point-of-use seat belt reminders were placed into automobiles.  They coached and reinforced the behavior of drivers to become an automatic behavior.

The result was a tremendous success which continues through this day.  People use their seat belts and their driver safety behaviors have been successfully improved for the long-term.

Back to office ergonomics, healthful behaviors including utilizing neutral postures, moving about periodically and providing recovery time while working on the computer are not essential to operating the computer, until one develops unnecessary discomfort and eventually a reportable injury.

Science and history have shown that you can improve these safety behaviors of integrating neutral postures, moving about periodically, and pacing with a point-of-use operant conditioning positive reinforcement tool being used.

Behavior Change Challenges

Unfortunately, there is an important type of dynamic in play due to the nature of the threats we face – which shape our behaviors. In the case of a person using a computer, the perceived safety threat is not immediate although we’re seeing today how the ramifications of improper usage can present significant discomfort in relatively short periods of time (months) including eventual irreversible injury.

In this way, improving behaviors of people using computers is more challenging as the harmful impacts of unhealthful behaviors are perceived as a “future” type of repercussion similar to smoking, unhealthful eating, etc…

Yet another significant challenge is that most employees using computers have had years of repetition to reinforce their unhealthful behaviors so we need to crowd-out the unhealthful behaviors with healthy behaviors.

One fact gleaned from the evidence-based science over the past 40 years includes that “people working on computers who are not using neutral postures, not moving about periodically and not providing recovery time” are highly susceptible to developing discomfort and, left unmitigated, eventual reportable injuries.

In the same way that some employees may miss the urgency of integrating neutral postures, moving about periodically, and pacing, even ergonomics professionals may also succumb to the temptation to wait or do nothing in the near term while the problem is silently and relentlessly growing and growing, week by week.  We are all human after all, doing the best that we can.

Coaching: The Glue That Binds Knowledge Into Sustainable Behavior Change

Beyond evidence-based science, including Psychology and Applied Behavioral Analysis which both laud coaching, the benefits of having a coach are self-evident in all aspects of human behavior including, just a few as examples:

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