December 2020: Energizing Behavioral Best Practices Within Remote Employees

Today, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, we find millions of employees often physically isolated in home offices, psychologically stressed to unprecedented levels while trying to remain focused on their work, glued to their computers for seemingly endless hours as part of our adaptive behavioral response to the times.

This recent article in the New York Times “The Pandemic of Work-From-Home Injuries” is emblematic of many similar articles now being published across the globe.  Each article reports another perspective of the growing number of people reporting discomfort and musculoskeletal injuries during the relatively short time they’ve been working remotely in their home-based offices.

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.  It’s also clear from reading the articles that the doctors caution that duration is also a serious threat here where the duration they’re referring to is the time that the unhealthful behaviors are permitted to continue.

For the astute reader of similar recent articles, you’ve probably noticed how many include specific prescriptive guidance from orthopedic surgeons regarding how to stay out of their operating rooms(1) more movement and stretching is needed while working, (2) brief microbreaks are needed while working to adequately provide metabolic recovery time and (3) smarter positioning of furniture and equipment is useful to encourage hopeful neutral postures.  

The three prescriptive elements all involve improved human behaviors which need to be developed while replacing prior unhealthy 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.

Not All Behaviors Are Alike

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 and being told to do something?  As you would expect, there are reasons.

Behavior: noun (be-hav-ior): Anything that an organism does involving action. The way in which someone or something functions or operates.

In order to better frame the problem before attempting to finally solve it, one must become aware that practicing good ergonomic behaviors such as working in neutral postures, moving about periodically and providing recovery time while working are secondary behaviors which are far different than the primary behaviors of simply operating a computer.

Let’s consider your car and driving safety as an example.  The primary behavior required to operate your vehicle includes manipulating the accelerator, the brakes and the steering wheel.  Wearing your seat belt, however, is a secondary behavior which is not essential to performing the task of driving.

It’s the exact same in office ergonomics with computer use. The primary behavior is manipulating the computer to produce something, whatever that may be.  Secondary behaviors including utilizing neutral postures, moving about periodically and providing recovery time while working on the computer, however, are not essential to operating the computer, until you develop unnecessary discomfort and eventually a reportable injury.

In the case of secondary 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 secondary driver safety behaviors have been successfully improved for the long-term.

Back to the realm of office ergonomics, how can you improve this secondary safety behavior of integrating neutral postures, moving about periodically, and pacing without a point-of-use operant conditioning positive reinforcement tool being used? 

To think otherwise, is tantamount to promoting that seat belt reminders are unnecessary and should be removed from automobiles, including the ones your children and loved ones operate or are passengers in.

Said more directly, do you want your children and loved ones to drive and be driven in cars without seatbelt reminders?

Further Behavior Change Challenges

Unfortunately, there is a different additional type of important primary/secondary dynamic in play due to the nature of the threats we face – which shape our behaviors.

A resonating illustrative example can be found considering the safety of a Power Saw Operator, where the threat of injury is immediate and resonates innately as the operator could easily lose a digit or entire hand in the very next moments if not operating their equipment safely.

In the case of a person using a computer, the perceived 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 likely to develop 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:

Evidence-based ErgoSuite Coach, helping people improve their behaviors since 2000, embodies the very best of Applied Behavioral Analysis and Operant Conditioning to help home-based employees learn to make good ergonomic behaviors automatic.  Its unique patented methods observe activity and recovery time in order to personally and gently coach users precisely when needed to prevent tissue damage and help make neutral postures, movement, micro-breaks and stretching all automatic behaviors for optimal employee safety and wellness.   ErgoSuite Coach gently and positively reinforces the desired employee behaviors.  

This unique intelligent personal coach is the glue that binds together the empowering value of office ergonomics as a sustainable solution.

It can be elegantly simple where you can be up and running, helping and protecting employees this week.

Imagine if you had a virtual extension of yourself who will personally visit with each and every employee in their home today, teach them key actionable best practices of computer ergonomics, help them assess and tune-up their at-home work area and thereafter personally coach them to learn to automatically move about and stretch periodically while they work, without having to think about it. 

That’s part of harnessing the power of ErgoSuite.  

Have some of your own tools in place?  Just combine your tools with the tools in ErgoSuite which you require, as a step of continuous improvement for an enduring sustainable holistic solution for your employees and employer.

This all starts with you and your vision to help remote employees work most comfortably, safely and productively.   ErgoSuite becomes a virtual extension of “you” helping every single employee personally every day – as if you were there with them each day.

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