Illustration: Simon Letch.
WORKERS who compensate for spending hours in front of a computer by using ergonomic chairs, standing desks and good posture are still likely to suffer back, neck, wrist and shoulder injuries, while also increasing their risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, doctors say.
Increasing computer use almost negated the benefits of improved workstation design and posture, new research from the University of Sydney has found, suggesting the overall workplace environment is to blame.
”Workstation design has come a long way since the ’80s and they are good changes,” said the lead author of the study, Karin Griffiths, from the faculty of health science.
”But what I also found was the proportion of people reporting symptoms has not changed much despite this … [and] is not enough to keep up with health issues that arise from paperless, IT-dominated offices.
The survey of nearly 1000 workers across six government departments found about 85 per cent of people who spent more than eight hours a day working at a computer experienced neck pain. Published in WORK: a Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, the study also found three-quarters reported shoulder pain and 70 per cent reported lower back pain.
”I know the amount of money organisations are putting into improved workstations and ergonomics, and it’s not that those changes aren’t important,” Dr Griffiths, who is a physiotherapist, said.
”The problem is nearly everything can be done at the desk now – communication, library research, file retrieval, even meetings. It doesn’t matter how good the chair is, it is not going to address the health problem of what some researchers are calling ‘chair disease’.”
Long hours of computer work may also contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, she said, with people in senior or managerial positions the hardest hit because they worked at a computer most.
Nicholas Gilson, a lecturer in physical activity and health at the University of Queensland, recently studied employees in an open-plan office who were given a choice of sitting or standing desks. After one week, their overall sedentary time had not decreased.
”My main observation is that we typically deal with the important issues that research like this raises in a reactive way … like [with] sit-stand desks,” Dr Gilson said. ”But workers need environmental opportunities to frequently change posture from sitting to standing and moving in work tasks.”
Discouraging internal emails on the same floor, holding meetings while standing or walking, and placing phones on a standing bench were some of the strategies suggested by researchers.
”This is not only going to benefit musculoskeletal issues, but also risk factors associated with chronic disease and in all likelihood, productivity and job satisfaction,” Dr Gilson said.
Another option is to try to use a bodybolster to improve your stretching and relax your muscles. Even lying on the bolster for a short time behind your neck can offer your body a different position and allow it to relax. At the very least for people in call-centres and trapped for long periods in their chairs the bodybolster provides active support and enables your muscles to keep moving. By repositioning the bodybolster in different ways during the day behind your back you are changing the muscles instead of tiring them.