Time for ergonomics

Do you often feel tired or demotivated? Do you have trouble concentrating at work? Has your performance or job satisfaction suffered? You may be surprised to learn that symptoms like these can be related to ergonomics, the science that analyses the connections between people and their work environments.

On average, we spend at least eight hours a day in the workplace. And for many of us, that means sitting in front of a screen. How we position our arms or hold our heads, as well as the minute vibrations given off by our devices, and the type of ambient lighting we use, are all important factors affecting physical and emotional health. And, of course, our performance. Speaking at the recent University of California, Berkeley COVID-19 Ergonomics Summit, Professor Alan Hedge of Cornell University believes that ‘a workspace with the right ergonomic design can increase productivity by up to 12%’. From large, executive offices to busy call centres, part of the problem is how the workplace has been progressively standardised over time. Now, more and more people are starting to ask the same question. Are our workspaces up to the job of the occupier?

While examples of ergonomic tools can be found from as early as 5th Century Greece, the study of this discipline is rather more recent. The First Industrial Revolution witnessed the introduction of large-scale mechanics in the mid-18th Century, prompting us to adapt to an environment enhanced by mechanical breakthroughs such as the Watt steam engine. We now know that the impact of this was as diverse as it was profound. Demographic (rural flight, migration, population growth); economic (the birth of capitalism from assembly line manufacturing); social (the emergence of the working class); and environmental (the deterioration of the environment) shifts changed the way we interacted with the world.

Many of these changes continued to have a significant impact throughout the Second Industrial Revolution which saw, between 1870 and 1914, innovations in energy such as gas, oil, or electricity; in transport such as aircraft or automobiles; in communication such as the telephone and radio,and even well into the Third Industrial Revolution, which began towards the end of the 1980s with the advent of new digital technologies.

We now live in the Fourth Industrial Revolution — or Industry 4.0 — a period first discussed at the 2016 World Economic Forum. It is a time when the use of electronic devices, the internet and information and communication technology has been maximised, even integrated into the human body. In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes how it differs fundamentally from the previous three, which were characterised mainly by advances in technology. These technologies have significant potential to continue connecting billions of people to the web, dramatically improving the efficiency of businesses and organisations, and helping to regenerate the natural environment through better asset management.

For the first time, we are now accurately and rigorously reviewing the relationship we have with our surroundings, seeking balance, and fit more than ever before. The first industrial revolution was only intended to adapt man to machine, due to the high economic cost of the machine and low cost of labour. Today this review is serious and profound, for it not only requires the adaptation of machines to people, it involves a new and profound understanding of the concept of comfort and an improvement of work environments that contributes to our well-being, health, and care of the environment.

In ergonomics — and in disciplines subordinate to it such as anthropometry, a technique that assesses the size, proportions, and composition of the human body — we gather our extensive technical knowledge to design spaces that allow us to carry out our tasks while acknowledging and prioritising the rigors of daily life.

‘The days are gone’

‘The days are gone’, a Polytechnic University of Catalonia study titled Ergonomics 3: Workspace design states, ‘in which the individual was supposed to make the effort to adapt to a workspace that, due to its spatial design, psychophysical requirements, or environment, was a source of discomfort, difficulty and injury. Now, it is the environment that must adapt to the individual, facilitating interesting, pleasant, and comfortable work in which we can channel our attentions’.

Covid-19 has changed the nature of this work, and our approach to ‘indoor life’. In a relatively short space of time, our jobs have become an integral part of our homes, where remote working has narrowed the gap between work and personal life. Shouldn’t, then, the study of ergonomics be a vital part of understanding performance at work? ‘Of course,’ says Dr Susan Hallbeck, president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, one of the largest academic medical centres in the United States, ‘we cannot be productive if we are in pain’. At a time when hundreds of millions of us are hunched over our laptops on sofas or beds, perched on hard dining chairs, or resting our arms and wrists on badly placed keyboards, we should consider Dr Hallbeck’s advice. ‘Treat your home like an office’, she says.

And your office as part of your home, we would add.

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