Posture and Comfort

by Hugh Babington Smith

The business case for caring about posture

Employers now have to invest huge amounts of management time to comply with employment and health and safety legal requirements.

In most businesses, employees are the most expensive asset. It makes sense to ensure that this asset can work most efficiently. Therefore, something that is fundamental to the individual will be fundamental to the employer as well.

Modern life is bad for posture, so generally speaking any employee is a risk to the company. If this risk is tackled at root, management time is less likely to be wasted, with the employee giving better value for money and the employer getting ahead of the competitor who does not take similar measures.

Think

Are your people an asset or a cost?

If you see employees as an asset, you should seek to maximise their performance.

Why is this a modern phenomenon?

The human body was not designed for prolonged sitting. Not only do computers bring us to the seat (though see Ergonomic equipment), but they remove many of the ‘micro-breaks’ we had when using typewriters – pushing the carriage return at the end of every line, stopping to correct mistakes with TippEx, changing paper, filing papers and so on.

The effects of discomfort and pain at work

Employers tend to believe that nothing is wrong because no one has complained. In fact, when people suffer in silence – when they ‘grin and bear it’ – they are not working to full efficiency. Unless something gives and the employee speaks out or takes time off, the employer simply may not realise that the salary bill he is paying is not bringing the value for money he could be getting. So work conditions are not satisfactory, both because the individual is suffering and because the employer is not getting value for money.

Relationships (including those in home life) will suffer from an individual’s poor posture. It is hard to be polite or friendly when you are in pain, especially if you think that there is nothing you can do. Supervisors will manage less effectively; colleagues will be harder to bear, and subordinates will be less co-operative.

What does business get out of investing in posture?

All this is of core importance to the business. There are three main areas of business life in which the employer will gain from investing in improving posture at the workplace:

  1. Reduction of the risks of absenteeism
  2. Compliance with health and safety law, with less risk of litigation
  3. Greater efficiency, which will include the improved morale and loyalty that come from ‘doing something for the employee’.

Low risk, high cost

Contrary to public perception, there is generally a low risk of absence due to musculoskeletal problems. There is an even lower risk of litigation and much of this can be settled out of court. Some cases get to court, however, so there is a small chance of prosecution for the employer (this is higher in industries such as construction).

However, while the risk may be small, the costs – monetary and psychological – that might arise from these risks are so high that preventative measures are a ‘no brainer’. (Reading studies of cases that have reached court, however, one is struck by the degree of obstinacy, bordering on stupidity, exhibited by some managements.)

High risk, high cost

At the other end of the scale, there is an extremely high risk, possibly even a certainty, of underperformance due to low level discomfort and pain; this underperformance can be very expensive. While it may not be possible to eliminate every problem, it is certainly possible and worthwhile to give preventative training aimed at managing and reducing the risk. The cost of effective training will be small compared with the advantage gained.

Note

The statistics do not reflect the fact that the real loss to companies is not the work-related absenteeism, but the inefficiency of those who grin and bear it but do not go absent – a form of ‘presenteeism’.

Government statistics for 2004/05 show that about 11 million days were lost through work-related musculoskeletal absence, with an average absence of about 20 days. Over the same period, there were about 28 million people in employment, so the lost 11 million days amounts to 0.2 per cent of the days available for work.

During the period – often weeks and months — before time is taken off work because of pain, a person will be working with ever-decreasing efficiency. Etcom People Engineers, a company that specialised in training in posture at the workplace, gathered facts and figures in this area in the UK, Germany and Austria. The information was derived from questionnaires that trainees filled in before their training. In all cases, the trainees were present at the direction of their employer, so unlike many running surveys of this kind, there was no self-selection. Over several years and scores of companies, the absolutely consistent result from a sample of nearly one thousand showed that 70 per cent of people in offices suffer musculoskeletal problems – which may not be work-related, but which certainly affect performance. About one third of all respondents have low level discomfort, but nearly one fifth of people reported ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ pain.

It is the latter, especially, who also report reduced efficiency. Whilst such a report could only be subjective in each case, in general this reduction in effectiveness means that, on average, for every 100 people being paid, an employer is probably getting 92 employees’ worth of work. In terms of working days, this equates to an overall reduction equivalent to the statutory minimum holidays, as seen on the pie chart.

Leaving these silent sufferers uncared for has a price. It is very worthwhile taking measures to reduce this level of pain and discomfort, thereby increasing efficiency as well as reaping the benefits of the intangibles of improvement to morale and working conditions.