Best Practices in HR

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Ron Wiener
  August 23, 2020

Why Ergonomic Workstations Have Become `Survival Equipment’ For Kitchen Table Employees In The Pandemic Era

Working from home isn’t an occasional choice anymore. The Coronavirus pandemic has catapulted millions of American desk workers from conventional offices into a workstation that is completely out of their comfort zone: the kitchen table.

The suddenness of the changeover hasn’t given anyone the opportunity to prepare for this new circumstance, either. So, while employees are trying to find a quiet oasis in the kitchen to do their job without interruptions from kids, spouses and pets, employers are grappling with an unusual responsibility they had never expected to encounter: facilitating ergonomic workstations in their employees’ homes.

Why Are Ergonomic Workstations Important?

The idea of ergonomic workstations gained traction in the late 1990s, when OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) made a startling discovery: $1 of every $3 paid out in workers’ compensation was on account of ergonomically unsound work environments.

The problem wasn’t confined to high-risk industries, such as construction, food processing, healthcare, transportation and warehousing. Jobs in commercial office settings were producing their own laundry list of musculoskeletal disorders related directly to excessive use of computers, and costing over $ 20 billion in payouts every year. For example:

  • Wrist/Carpal tunnel injury: ($ 7,600 average cost in direct/indirect workers’ compensation).
  • Tennis Elbow: ($ 9,100 average cost in direct/indirect workers’ compensation).
  • Shoulder/Rotator Cuff injury: ($ 14,800 average cost in direct/indirect workers’ compensation).
  • Neck injury: ($ 21,000 average cost in direct/indirect workers’ compensation). [Source: Briotix Health]

Even in those days the pressing need for smart workstations that fit the employee, rather than forcing the employee’s body to fit an existing – and ergonomically poor – desk-chair set up wasn’t lost on frontier companies like Google that led the ergonomic revolution in offices. Smart furniture equipment gave workers the freedom they craved from deskbound jobs that blocked circulation, tightened neck and shoulder muscles, and caused physical and mental stress from being confined to an assigned space all day without physical exercise.

And not just that.

Productivity began increasing exponentially, and upper managements witnessed a sea change in the morale, application and enthusiasm of their teams. We all know that a little exercise goes a long way to promote mental clarity and emotional wellbeing. Spending 8 hours or more using ergonomically-tuned desks, chairs and other office equipment went a very long way towards making up for a lack of movement during the workday. 

And then came COVID-19.

Thanks to the virus pandemic, ergonomic office equipment is now more relevant than ever. But the focus has shifted from healthy office environments to cramped employee homes where people are being forced to use dining chairs, sofas, beds or anything else that is available to carry on with their jobs. 

It is imperative to keep in mind that Coronavirus is not a passing event that will disappear as swiftly as it arrived. It is impossible to say if we will trump the pandemic this year, next year – or indeed, ever.

Most companies are already coming to grips with the fact that large numbers of lawsuits will be filed against them by employees who got sick and seek damages from their employers for not taking reasonable measures to protect them. Coupled with the fact that an estimated two-thirds of all commercial office space does not comply with new CDC guidelines and would require very heavy investment in construction to make compliant, it all boils down to the realization that WFH is the least risky strategy for avoiding these costs, at least in the short term. 

And many businesses will simply do away with the concept of centralized workspaces altogether and stay profitably remote with reduced overheads.

In each of these scenarios, employee welfare is a critical piece of the puzzle. And ensuring ergonomic workstations at home is the inevitable solution for anyone looking for a simple and seamless transition in these unpredictable times.

Can Smart Workstations Be `Improvised’?

Sure, they can. Social media, in fact, is trending with pictures of people hooking up television sets as makeshift monitors to avoid `laptop freeze’. Frustrated, ex-officegoers using ironing boards as standing desks to avoid thrombosis, propping it up against a wall to minimize the wobble. They’re padding dining room chairs with piles of cushions and making footrests out of cardboard boxes.

But are any of these improvised, DIY solutions ergonomically sustainable?

Not in the eyes of trained experts.

In fact, they may be doing more harm than good. 

Ergonomic Home Workstations Are The Most Comprehensive Solution – For Now And For The Future

Depending on the preference and wellness goals of individual staff members, many employers are now offering ergonomic workstation suites that include:

  • Standing Desks: The primary tool in fighting “sitting disease.”
  • Standing Desk Converters: In situations where there are built-in counters these devices sit on top and offer the same opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing as a full sit-stand desk does. Also a great alternative in low-budget situations. 
  • Ergonomic Monitor Arms: Articulating holders that raise and lower the monitor to eye level to prevent neck strain. Especially important for standing desk users because this needs to be re-adjusted each time they change position (due to the lower spine bending when seated).
  • Standing Mats: For standing desk users these specially-formulated anti-fatigue mats will significantly reduce foot and low-back pain, tripling the amount of time they can stand instead of sit each day.
  • Ergonomic Keyboard Trays: Essential for reducing repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) associated with typing all day. Particularly important for standing users who do not have arm rests to rely on for forearm support.
  • Ergonomic Chairs: These don’t have to be terribly fancy (most users never learn how to properly adjust a chair with 17 levers) but a good, sturdy, supportive chair is essential.

 For the same reason that employers hire ergonomists to outfit every desk worker with a proper ergonomic workstation at the corporate campus, getting workers’ home offices up to the same standards is essential. For their health and productivity, as well as to avoid costly insurance claims.

Because these workers were instructed to WFH, the veil of liability for their ergonomic health has expanded beyond the campus to the employees’ home offices, so progressive employers are getting ahead of the problem by offering financial reimbursement, in whole or in part, to help them get properly equipped.