Office ergonomics

So much more than chairs

Office ergonomics concerns all of the factors that impact on the health, wellbeing and productivity of people who work in an office environment, from chairs, desks and computers to shift patterns, work practices and stress management.

Perhaps the most well known aspect of office ergonomics relates to the physical environment, particularly office chairs.  To be ergonomic, a chair should adjust in seat height, backrest height and angle and armrest height. To help them decide on the specifications for a chair, designers use a branch of ergonomics called anthropometrics. This concerns body measurements, ranges of joint movement, reach distances and clearance dimensions. All of these are important if we’re going to have any chance of creating products and spaces that fit us properly and comfortably.

It’s not just chairs that impact on an employee’s working life. Work equipment can have a considerable impact on user comfort, health, wellbeing and performance. Poorly designed office equipment can influence headaches, job-related stress, and musculoskeletal problems primarily affecting the lower back, neck/shoulders and upper limbs. For example, as many as 1 in 5 regular computer users are diagnosed with a musculoskeletal problems affecting the upper limbs. Pain, functional impairment, psychological distress and productivity loss are common symptoms and outcomes.

The use of office equipment that possesses good ergonomics is likely to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal problems. It also demonstrates an employer’s commitment to its employees’ health and wellbeing. This helps to attract and retain employees and provides a positive client experience during meetings.

When it comes to keyboards and mice,  the aim is to maintain comfortable hand and wrist positions and designing these input devices to fit us in as natural a position as possible, without undue strain. Of course, where they’re positioned on the desk in relation to you is just as important.

Research has shown that effective office ergonomics interventions on average reduce the number of musculoskeletal problems by 61%, reduce lost workdays by 88% and reduce staff turnover by 87%. The Cost:Benefit Ratio is on average 1:1.78 with a payback period of 0.4 years.

When it comes to the monitor, as well as the physical characteristics of the display such as how clear it is, how large the icons and text are, there is the software itself to consider. When we design computer programs, we use another branch of ergonomics called cognitive ergonomics. This considers how we perceive, understand and respond to information presented to us. In this case, when it’s applied to software used on a computer, it’s called Human-Computer Interaction or HCI.

HCI includes the appearance of everything you see on the screen, together with what happens when you press a key on your keyboard, or click a mouse button. The size, shape and colour of screen graphics, the design of icons, the position and format of menus, should all help us to achieve what we want to do, and not make us frustrated because they’re not logical or don’t do what we’d expect. And designing to tried and tested standards helps to ensure consistency so that we can use what we learn in one program, in another, without having to start from scratch.

There’s also the environmental aspects to consider – the temperature, noise and lighting. Whilst you may not find all these just right for you all the time, research helps us to design workplaces with certain temperature, noise and lighting ranges that suit most people – for the type of work they are doing. And that’s an important consideration. In an office, you’ll probably be sat down for much of the day, you need it to be fairly quiet so you can concentrate on what you’re doing, and you need to be able to see your screen and paperwork clearly. If you had a more physically demanding job, like working in a storeroom, you’d need the temperature to be lower because you’d be generating your own heat. You may not need so much light and you might not be bothered about the amount of noise around you.

Ergonomics is used to apply knowledge from the engineering disciplines covering user preferences concerning lighting, ventilation, temperature and noise. Knowledge from environmental psychology is also used to design aesthetically pleasing work environments providing a sense of space and privacy while also optimising team working and collaboration.

Poorly designed indoor work environments account for a 3% reduction in productivity on average. The term “Sick Building Syndrome” is used to describe a building in which a significant proportion (more than 20%) of building occupants report illness perceived to be building related. Symptoms include respiratory, skin, nerve and nasal problems and also complaints about odours. Providing a sense of control over heating, cooling, ventilation and noise can positively impact productivity.

The workspace arrangements inside an office building can also affect productivity and effective collaboration. Human Factors studies are often conducted to assess workflow including:
  • How specific individuals, teams and work groups collaborate
  • The specific work tasks performed within different job roles to identify the need for task specific work spaces and how they should be designed
  • How information is exchanged and communicated
  • How to ensure that critical knowledge is communicated correctly, completely, clearly and concisely

Work-related psychosocial risks concern aspects of the design and management of work and its social and organisational contexts that have the potential for causing psychological or physical harm (e.g. work-related stress, workplace violence, harassment and bullying).

Effectively managing work-related stress can positively impact leadership, productivity, innovation, health, wellbeing and safety.

An Ergonomics and Human Factors Specialist assesses these hazards in the context of specific roles and how organisational factors (processes, procedures, shift patterns etc.), the workplace and environment, the tools and technology and personal characteristics affects task performance.
Psychosocial risk management has been identified as an important challenge for organisations, particular during difficult economic times.

However, there are also other challenges that require the application of human factors and ergonomics including:

  • Managing sustainable organisational change in difficult economic times
  • Multi-factorial risks (e.g. call centers: combined effects of poor ergonomics design and excessive organizational, mental or emotional demands)
  • Complexity of new mobile and collaborative technologies, new work processes for virtual team working and human-machine interfaces leading to increased mental and emotional strain
  • Poor design of the human machine interface in new technologies requiring high hand force application and high repetition in awkward postures for operation
  • Mobile workforce travel security and risk management
  • Prevention of Cyber Attacks on the mobile technology that employees use

Now we come to ‘organisational ergonomics’. This is where we look at aspects of the work itself, such as workloads, team work, and work flow. Can everyone cope with the amount and type of work they’ve got? Do they need help from other people, or more training perhaps? Do they have the right tools for the job such as a certain computer program, filing system, or a telephone headset?

We also use ergonomics to help us with health and safety aspects. We have guidelines for lifting weights (like boxes of paper, water-cooler bottles, files, etc), and research helps us to understand how people react in emergencies, so that we have effective evacuation procedures in place, for example.

So next time you’re in the office, take a look at all the ergonomics around you!