June 2022: Elevated MSDs, Remote Work and Rising Treatment Costs

It seems we’re all hearing startling news every week including global inflation, climate-change impacts, how our personal buying power decreases weekly and more.  Employers too are navigating acute challenges including supply-chain disturbances, ever-increasing fuel costs, navigating The Great Resignation and more.  

Now we find remarkable Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD) numbers have recently been published in a new study based on the latest data from the CDC in the U.S.  Experts agree that the U.S. is not unique in the trends.

Employers have choices including continuing to absorb the losses or employing mitigation strategies to regain control in the New Normal and reduce the losses.

Contributing to the numbers, remote workers are experiencing increasing discomfort or pain and often don’t report ergonomic issues to their employer early.  Instead, a majority attempt to quietly resolve symptoms through their personal doctor and look towards their health plan to pay the bill.  In the vast majority of cases, this develops into unnecessary over-utilization of health plan resources while discomfort mushrooms into pain and a full-blown MSD. 

New timely research was recently published by Hinge Health, State of MSKs 2022, which explores trends impacting musculoskeletal care in America.  Experts agree that much of the report provides more than ample base data which can be extrapolated to the other developed economies of the world.

Reported in this most-recent research, we find actionable data regarding rates of MSDs in America, links to chronic pain and mental health, MSDs costs and medical claims and more:

For all of the important reasons, we all want our employees to have a comfortable, positive, productive and safe experience while working on their computer whether it be in the office or home-office.

Mitigating ergonomic risks 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 workplace Health and Safety articles, you’ve probably noticed how some 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.

Ergonomics Best Practices

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:

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.

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? 

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 MSDs.

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