Office Ergonomics and Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs)
Over the past decade, office-based work has increased significantly and with it a growing body of scientific evidence of the potential health concerns of sedentary behaviour, and poor posture in computer-based office spaces. As employees can often spend more than 35 hours per week at their computer workstation, the office environment plays a large role in a worker’s daily life (Shikdar & Al Kindi 2007), with office workers being at high risk of sedentary behaviours (Healy et al. 2012). Prolonged sitting has found to be a risk factor for poor health and early death, even among those who meet, or exceed, national physical activity guidelines (van der Ploeg et al. 2012; Healy et al. 2012), with bouts of more than 20-30 minutes likely to be detrimental to health (Straker et al. 2016).
Health and Economic Outcomes of Prolonged Occupational Sitting
There is no strong evidence of the direct effect of prolonged sitting in the workplace on economic benefit, however, it is possible to speculate that sedentary behaviours such as prolonged occupational sitting could indirectly contribute to negative economic outcomes through risk of workers developing chronic diseases (Healy et al. 2012).
Office workstation designs significantly affect working posture, which in turn, contributes to the development of WMSDs (van Vledder & Louw 2015).
The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017-2018 found the following work-related injury rates:
● 7.8% of clerical and administrative workers were affected by a work-related injury.
● 18.1% of professionals experienced a work-related injury or illness.
● 9% of work-related injuries in the last 12 months were repetitive movements with low muscle loading (most relevant to office work e.g. occupational sitting, typing).
A significant decrease in WMSDs, and an increase in worker effectiveness and health, was found when office employees were given both a flexible/adjustable work environment, and ergonomics training (Robertson, M. & O Neill 1999; Robertson, MM & Huang 2006). Workstation ergonomics training aims to allow the worker to be able to self-assess their workstation furniture and equipment to suit their health, safety, and task needs.
Workplace Intervention to Reduce Sedentary Behaviours
Effective workplace interventions at an individual worker level aim to substitute or interrupt sitting time. Examples include management providing ergonomic furniture and equipment such as adjustable sit stand workstations to allow variation in posture and reduce experienced pain/discomfort. Other low-cost interventions include walking meetings, going for walks during formal breaks, breaks from sitting every thirty minutes to move around and/or perform dynamic exercises and stretches, and encouraging a variety of work tasks so that there is variety in posture throughout the day.
Workplace interventions must also target the organisational and cultural level. This involves a commitment from all stakeholders to ensure workers are educated and aware of the benefits of changing posture and taking breaks during work, and the health risks of occupational sedentary behaviours.
In conclusion, office-based work is on the rise, and with it work-related musculoskeletal disorders and discomfort in part due to sedentary behaviour and poor posture, stemming from poor ergonomic workstation design and ergonomic awareness. Evidence shows that a safe working environment not only incorporates one workplace intervention in isolation, but rather multi-component interventions targeting multiple elements of work systems such as a combination of ergonomically designed equipment/environment, ergonomic education,and training; and organisation-backed role models to build and maintain a healthy, and ergonomically mindful workforce. Implementing these strategies would assist in reducing sedentary behaviours in office-based workers.
Final Year Physiotherapy Student
Healy GN, Lawler SP, Thorp A, Neuhaus M, Robson EL, Owen N & Dunstan DW 2012. ‘Reducing prolonged sitting in the workplace (An evidence review: full report)’, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne, Australia.
Robertson, M & O Neill, M 1999, 'Effects of Environmental Control on Stress, Performance and Group Effectiveness', vol. 43, pp. 552 - 56.
Robertson, MM & Huang, YH 2006, 'Effect of a workplace design and training intervention on individual performance, group effectiveness and collaboration: the role of environmental control', Work, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 3-12.
Shikdar, A & Al Kindi, M 2007, 'Office Ergonomics: Deficiencies in Computer Workstation Design', International journal of occupational safety and ergonomics : JOSE, vol. 13, 02/01, pp. 215-23.
Straker, L, Coenen, P, Dunstan, D, Gilson, N & Healy, G 2016, Sedentary Work – Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issue.
van der Ploeg, HP, Chey, T, Korda, RJ, Banks, E & Bauman, A 2012, 'Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality Risk in 222 497 Australian Adults', Archives of Internal Medicine, vol. 172, no. 6, pp. 494-500.