The pressing need for employers to mitigate the well-understood risks from static postures has been called out over the past few years by many organizations including the WHO, AMA, NIH and EU-OSHA and others around the globe.
Further, abundant evidence from a growing number of significant studies has been published confirming significant health problems, for the average otherwise-healthy population, resulting from prolonged static postures particularly involving sitting at work.
The lead author of the most recent study, Columbia University Medical Center’s Keith Diaz, PhD, stated: “We’ve known for probably about a decade now that sitting increases your risk for most chronic diseases and increases your risk for early death.”
During the early months of the pandemic, The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) published a remarkable article, which unfortunately couldn’t compete in the news with the growing deadly pandemic and had little coverage compared to if it were published at any other time, “Musculoskeletal Disorders and Prolonged Static Sitting“.
We’ll unpack the EU-OSHA publication and explore what it means to Safety Professionals and their employers no matter if you live in the EU, Toronto, Abu Dhabi or New York City. Evidently, the enormous human and financial costs are becoming well-understood.
The publication begins: “Sedentary behaviour is widespread. It is to be expected that more and more workers will be confronted with sedentary type of tasks due to further automation and computerization. Sedentary behaviour leads to various health risks. Besides musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), prolonged sitting may also lead to health risks in other domains, such as diabetes, heart- and vascular disease, depression and even mortality.
“Sedentary behaviour is increasing both at work and in private life, this is why attention must be paid to this health risk. Replacing sitting by standing is not always the solution, as prolonged standing can also, may result in health risks. This is why it is considered important to change between postures as much as possible.“
Placing This In Perspective
The publication continues: “Prolonged sitting is an increasing occupational health risk in the workplace. Due to the use of computers and other similar devices, many workers are tied to their desks for prolonged periods of time. Where previously the nature of work required workers to move around in the office, e.g. to put something in a filing cabinet, now many tasks just require a mouse click. Due to digitalization and automation, there has been an increase of the amount of screen work in recent years and this is expected to increase in the future.”
Numerous studies have shown that we can successfully mitigate these harmful impacts of prolonged static postures if we “break them up regularly, even for a few minutes every half hour while working”. This is dependent, naturally, on that people can remember to do it regularly – or better yet, make it into an automatic behavior (a habit).
The successful leadership action step here is simply to pivot the mindset. Stop needing to budget high expenses for unnecessary healthcare overutilization, ergonomic injuries, lost productivity and more and to invest instead in time-tested strategies to help employees and the employer’s bottom line. Here we find much “low hanging fruit to pick” as the experts say.
Example Health Effects of Static Postures
The publication cites Low Back, Neck and Shoulder plus Lower Limb problems as some of the most quickly manifesting effects. In addition, it also prominently cites chronic effects “Prolonged sitting is also associated with a spectrum of other health risks, including diminished cardiovascular health (including vascular function, circulation and blood pressure problems and heart disease), cancer, diabetes, weight gain, metabolic syndromes, higher risk of psychological distress, muscle degeneration, osteoporosis and a higher rate of mortality.“
All of these have direct serious impacts on employees and their employers. Although the publication guides “Groups most at risk of experiencing prolonged sitting are those working in offices.“, it also reviews other types of work which include deleterious static postures such as laboratory work.
Regulatory Requirements and Guidance
Relevant regulatory oversight on static postures varies across the globe, for now. For the astute reader, however, looking for the regulations in my locale is secondary to understanding the nature of the issue and how it affects our employees’ and company’s health, financial condition and wellbeing.
While there are, of course, relevant regulations beyond the EU, from the EU-OSHA publication specifically:
Best Practice Behaviors
For each of you professionals already providing employees with training and better adjustable furniture and equipment, we tip our hat to you as your instincts and efforts are spot on since every employee can benefit from these elements 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.
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 well-known reasons.
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.
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.
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, elegantly embodies the very best of Applied Behavioral Analysis and Operant Conditioning to help office-based and home-office-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 inflammation, tissue damage and help make neutral postures, movement, micro-breaks and stretching all automatic behaviors for optimal employee health, safety and wellness. ErgoSuite Coach gently and positively reinforces the desired employee behaviors.
Imagine if you had a virtual extension of yourself who will personally visit with each and every employee today, teach them key actionable best practices of computer ergonomics, help them assess and tune-up their 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.