December 2021: Psychological Stress and Knowledge Worker MSDs

Chronic stress inflicts many impacts on employees, management, processes, collaboration and of course the bottom line – but how does stress factor into the development of Musculoskeletal Disorders and why are employers justifiably concerned going into 2022?

 

Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, employee stress had already been clearly identified as a highly costly and disruptive health issue affecting employers.  Now, due to the pandemic and shifting workscape, however, employee stress has understandably become more acute.  Most people are coming to realize that COVID-19 will be with us for quite some time to come, if not indefinitely.  

Add to that, the economic stress being shouldered by people at all pay levels.  In short, most people have been receiving significant chronic stressors from multiple sources over the recent 24 months which will continue through next year at the very least.

Employee stress, beyond its own innate pathology, is also a condition with contagion-like characteristics which can spread like viruses through employee conversations, chats, emails and online meetings.  For these and many other good reasons, employee stress has become an important mission-critical priority on the radar of employers concerned about organizational effectiveness and wellness.

The American Psychological Association has published it’s “2021 Work and Well-being Survey” with the subtitle “The American Workforce Faces Compounding Pressure“.  From the report: After more than a year of working during the pandemic, the American workforce reports compounding pressures that are impacting the stress they feel, their ability to do their jobs, and whether they’ll look for a new workplace in the next year.

The report continues “What’s striking is that more than two in five said they intend to seek employment outside their company in the next year…which could impact many industries already facing a shortage of workers…

Some of the findings include:


Stress
, A Dangerous Accelerant in The Development of MSDs

It’s been known for many decades that stress creates physiological responses, which have been the focus of a significant body of research over many decades.  Research has conclusively determined that stress plays a significant role, as an independent variable, in the development of Work-Related Upper Extremity MSDs.  

The understanding of stress being an independent variable correlating to Musculoskeletal Disorders as the dependent variable is far too important to dismiss.  Simply said, stress can play a significant role in the development of workplace injuries of computer users.

A reader may ask: “How can something you experience in your mind impact physical ergonomics, such as in the case of computer users which mostly driven by their behaviors of posture, movement and recovery time?”  The answer has been widely researched and well-understood for many decades:

Beyond the innate physical pathology of musculoskeletal disorders and eventual workplace injuries of computer workers, this additional factor of “employee stress” prominently layers on top of the need of actively managing computer user behaviors including posture, movement and recovery time as an important organizational mitigation strategy and best practice.

Combining these factors in the holistic equation of Health and Wellness, left unchecked, something will have to give at some point in many employees and therefore will significantly impact the organization they’re employed by.

WFH Safety, Health and Stress Challenges in 2022

Around the globe today in the New Normal, with so many people working from home, past approaches to resolving ergonomics challenges for WFH employees have been re-thought.  Past mitigation practices were helpful for occasional work-at-home schedules, however, today many of us work where we live.  Life has changed.

The core ergonomics, however, of encouraging employees to work in neutral postures and “provide regular movement and metabolic recovery time while working” remains sacrosanct and has not changed.  

Employers embracing Continuous Improvement, know that “as the riskscape evolves, their risk mitigation practices must evolve also or efficacy and results predictably erode”.

A different type of challenge complicates things further.  Instead of reporting small issues to their employer early, most employees often postpone addressing the matter, attempt to quietly resolve symptoms through their personal doctor and look towards their health insurance to cover the bill.  In most cases, this develops into unnecessary over-utilization of healthcare resources while discomfort mushrooms into a full-blown injury case.

Significant risk facing WFH employees, and therefore their employers, stems from basic root causes:

The Psychological Power of Pause – Give Me A Break

Health and safety professionals clearly understand the vital importance of the behaviors of working in neutral postures and providing metabolic recovery time while working (microbreaks) to break up static postures.  Beyond that, however, the value of microbreaks goes much further for employees and employers.

For decades, psychologists have studied people’s work behaviors and habits, publishing across the top peer-reviewed Psychological Journals.  The studies have examined the impacts of providing brief recovery time while working, which any person can learn with the right approach.

What is most repeated and common in the research is how there are simple behavioral improvements which yield remarkable, reliable and sustainable gains in comfort, focus, fatigue and accuracy.

A representative article published in The American Psychological Association Give me a break along with similar articles and papers, summarize the benefits of frequent brief microbreaks while working (1 or 2 minutes per hour) and their impact on physical and mental health:

 

As with everything we do in our lives, it’s one thing to be aware of something we should do and quite another to make it a new long-term behavior where it becomes automatic.  This applies to any human skill including music, sports and even wearing seat belts or healthfully working on our computers for 8-10 hours each workday.  At the top of the list of successful approaches is to have a coach guide us to making new behaviors automatic.

ErgoSuite’s gentle behavioral coaching tools, for Windows and Mac, are widely implemented by the world’s most successful employers to help employees learn to automatically work with the desired behaviors of using neutral postures, taking micro-breaks while working and moving about periodically during their day to stretch and break up static postures. 

Clients do not simply implement ErgoSuite and hope it will help.   Instead, clients know that you can objectively quantify and report on both the behavioral changes as well as the impact on comfort, output, fatigue and alertness.


Effective Simple Strategies Employers Leverage Today

As with everything we do in our lives, it’s one thing to be aware of something we should do and quite another to make it a new long-term behavior where it becomes automatic.  This applies to any human skill including music, sports, nutrition, and even wearing seat belts or healthfully working on our computers for 8-10 hours each workday.

We’ve spoken with many clients recently who are sharing how they’re leveraging their ErgoSuite platforms to extend their Office Ergonomics safety net at their facilities to their WFH employees telecommuting from home.  At the high level view, clients are leveraging ErgoSuite as their front-line surface area for employees for reducing physical strain and mental stress broadly across their organization:

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