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Understanding the importance of workplace ergonomics

There are lots of ways businesses can enhance processes, cut costs and drive innovation. But more often than not, workplace ergonomics is often overlooked.

This is surprising given its underlying importance. The more comfortable and healthier your employees are, the more engaged, productive and inspired they will be. And, as a direct result of that, the better off your business is going to be in all regards.

We take a look at some of the key themes behind workplace ergonomics and what you can do to transform your surroundings to improve, as the Health and Safety Executive puts it, "the 'fit' between people and their work".

The aim of ergonomics

Ergonomics, or "human factors", are very important; there needs to be a harmonious relationship between employees and their workplace environment, the equipment they use and the tasks they carry out.

A woman stretching at desk

Any imbalance in this "fit" impacts negatively on a person's sense of wellbeing, with, for example, some studies suggesting that the health hazards of sitting at your desk could be just as detrimental to your health as smoking.

The aim of ergonomics is to reduce the risk of this happening, by improving current working practices. It's about setting yourself new standards and ultimately modernising your workplace

Things to consider

There are three key areas of ergonomics to consider. They include the job itself; the physical and mental characteristics of employees; and the work environment. All three must be properly assessed and audited to deliver real and meaningful improvements.

The job

Think over the demands you place on your employees. Is their workload justifiable? Is your equipment up to scratch? It's vital to ask these questions as something as "little" as having outdated technology can be detrimental. The business cost of this is unnecessary, as are the frustrations borne out of having to contend with worn-out computers, for example.

Workload remains a massive bugbear but, as a Department of Health document relating to mental health outlines, there are creative ways of solving the problem. At a base level, offering support to employees who feel under constant pressure to deliver can go a long way in helping them manage their time and feel less anxious.

The employee

Over the last few years, employee engagement has been increasing at a steady pace up the HR agenda, with more organisations attuned to the virtues of this. In the context of ergonomics, there are physical and psychological things to invest in.

When providing solutions, think about how people organise their work – i.e. how can you move people away from the desk – consider issues relating to posture and how they feel about their work, what their opinions are of opportunities and so forth.

Poor posture, specifically, is an understood area, as it can be massively damaging to employees and business. For example, 131 million work days were lost due to sickness and illness in 2013, with stress and back pain cited as the main cause of absence from work.

Surprisingly, the remedies are simple enough, with the two key solutions for reducing muscle tension and delivering smarter working including better chairs and 'mobile technology'. The latter relates to hardware like headsets – as part of a wider strategy (unified communications, as a case in point) – while the former is self-explanatory: more comfortable chairs.

The organisation

With the organisation, the important aspects primarily concern the physical environment – humidity, noise and temperature – but also extends into areas like work patterns, the culture of the workplace and leadership.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, the national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness, "such factors are often overlooked during the design of jobs" despite having "a significant influence on individual and group behaviour".

Take the culture of your workplace. Do you really understand how your organisation is perceived by your employees? How comfortable do they feel with either the official ethos of your business or the way things operate on the office floor?

From revamping the office to be more engaging – feng shui perhaps - to committing your middle managers and supervises to being better leaders, embracing organisational change to make the workplace a more comfortable, nurturing and inclusive place, will go a long way to helping you achieve all your goals. It pays to look after your employees.

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