For 150 years ergonomics has sought to adapt workspaces to people in order to maintain performance and safeguard health. Paradoxically however, the quest to avoid ailments and to enhance productivity has cut any kind of physical activity in the office to a minimum. Everything is close to hand and our bodies are supported by cumbersome office chairs with multiple adjustments. Working environments are also handily condensed to computer screens. Instead of rummaging for folders, lugging files about and delivering office post, the only exercise taken is confined to typing on a keyboard and moving a mouse to get office work done. And what’s the upshot? The imbalance between performance and physical fitness is growing, days lost to sickness are soaring and people are taking longer to recover. At the same time, the knowledge economy is placing office work at the heart of added value. As former objects, employees are turning into the subjects of business success. So isn’t it high time we cast a critical eye on ergonomic strategies that are clearly leading to an impasse? Because based on current health-research findings, brand-new approaches can be developed today that spawn healthboosting, motivating and efficient office spaces.
The backache epidemic
The rise in back pain is a global phenomenon. Which is why the World Health Organisation declared the “Bone and Joint Decade 2000-2010” in January 2000. Because muscle and joint ailments are the second most common cause of working days lost to sickness – with no sign of this trend abating. This negative development also applies to offices. The number of ailments, particularly where people work at computers, has risen sharply. The figure’s jumped by over 44 per cent in ten years – and virtually all these complaints are associated with sitting still for long periods at desks. Although physical work is less and less common, muscular and skeletal complaints are going up. There’s also been an upsurge in the number of days lost to sickness due to depressive illnesses. These occupy second place behind muscular and skeletal complaints. Some stress researchers believe the combination of a pressurised environment with too little physical activity is disastrous and has a detrimental effect on the metabolism. In stressful situations, hormones and neurotransmitters are emitted to put the body on alert, to focus all its senses and to ensure it performs at its maximum capability. On the other hand, all bodily functions not immediately required are held in check. These include recuperative and digestive processes and the capacity for cognitive thought. The problem is that if this condition is combined with a dearth of physical activity, stress hormones take longer to dissipate and constant major disruptions to the metabolism arise. Workloads, pressure to perform, personal availability, sensory overload from multiple media channels and a range of other disruptions in offices have burgeoned. In many environments, these factors have led to perpetual stress levels.
At the same time (especially in stressful situations) office workers very often sit at their desks staring at computer screens and natural physical responses to conquer stress are lacking. As a consequence, one reason given by new theories for the sharp increase in depressive illnesses is that relentless stress, not just as a result of constantly overtaxing our bodies (for example as with professional sports players), but also due to a lack of physical activity, can weaken the immune system and cause the body’s natural regulatory mechanisms to topple.
We hope this publication is a useful contribution and will spark debate on the issues and prompt action to be taken – which after all speaks louder than words.