Transition to paperless offices not victimless

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Office workers from all professions are experiencing unprecedented levels of neck, back, shoulder and arm pain as an unintended consequence of the paperless office, according to academic research.

The study by the University of Sydney, published in WORK: a Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, found that moves since the 1980s to improve OHS and workstation design may have been completely reversed by changing work practices, including longer duration of computer work and less task variability.

The survey of more than 900 office workers found a direct correlation between the amount of time spent at a computer and the likelihood of experiencing musculoskeletal pain over a 12 month period.

Some 85% of people who participated in the study, who spent more than eight hours a day working with a computer, experienced neck pain, while 74% reported shoulder pain and a further 70% reported lower back pain. “Since I started assessing offices for computer workstation safety in the early 1980s, I’ve noticed massive changes with the amount of computer work now performed by office workers, particularly professional and executive workers,” lead author of the research, Karin Griffiths said.

Despite better workstation designs, seating and health education has not resulted in an observable decrease in the number of office workers reporting pain over the last 20 to 30 years. “In fact, recent research shows that prolonged sitting and the lack of physical activity associated with computer work is the main problem, and may be contributing to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity along with musculoskeletal pain,” Griffiths added.

As part of the research, Griffiths, who also works as an occupational health and rehabilitation physiotherapist, compared office workers in different occupations, the number of hours of computer-based work they reported, and whether they experienced pain or other health problems. While musculoskeletal symptoms affect all office workers, those who spent more time at their computers, including professionals and senior executives, were the hardest hit. 

No longer just the domain of non-professional employees such as secretaries, data entry and call centre workers, all office workers are now subjected to long hours of computer-based work, and as a result professionals are more likely than ever before to experience musculoskeletal pain.

According to Griffiths, with long computer-based work here to stay, the key to preventing musculoskeletal pain among office workers lies in changing workstation design and how we do our jobs so that we are obliged to stand and walk more often during work hours.

Activity-based workplaces, in which computer and non-computer work tasks can be completed at a variety of seated and standing workstations, are an example of an encouraging movement towards more mindful office design.

Other ways of reducing the risk of musculoskeletal symptoms at work could include discouraging internal emails on the same floor to encourage employees to walk to their colleagues instead, ‘kitchen table’ type meetings that encourage people to stand and walk, or work systems that require frequent standing breaks, such as placement of telephones on a standing bench.

“Offices need to be designed to stimulate physical activity among employees. We need to start including standing workstations and encourage more standing and walking within offices as a matter of course for everyone who uses a computer for most of their day,” Griffiths said.

Related story: Stand-up desks, fad or future?

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