The risk to young people from their inappropriate use of technology is huge, as Nigel Heaton and Guy Osmond explain.

We believe society faces an ergonomics challenge that has the potential to overwhelm. Something needs to be done now to prepare for the tidal wave of musculoskeletal issues that threaten to engulf the current and future generations of workers.

The new digital world

The problem is with the influx of technology and how the younger generation are using it. Everybody is more exposed to technology than ever before and we interact with it in a variety of ways, from games consoles to smartphones. The use of smartphones and tablets is widespread, and the level of technology interaction both in and outside the workplace is greater than ever before.

We are immersed in our digital experiences on public transport, in our bedrooms, in classrooms and in the evenings while also watching TV. Young people give no thought to the potential impact of such prolonged use of technology nor the situations and postures in which they use it.

Negative effects of technology

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are caused by a combination of presence and exposure to hazards. Particularly for young people, this can result in a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing. They have sub-optimal ways of using technology in the modern world, for example, on poor quality chairs, under unsuitable lighting and without keyboards. Plus, they will work for long periods under pressure without taking breaks. Completing a level in a game, against the clock or opponents, can be prioritised for many hours during which time resting, stretching, eating and even sleeping will be forgotten.

These activities are starting at a very early age, with primary school children being given tablets for education and play. US schools purchased 3.5 million tablets in 2015, according to industry analysts, and worldwide, K-12 spending on tablets has increased 60 per cent over the last year.

In 2013, Katarzyna Stawarz and Rachel Benedyk from University College London published a study on the use of touch-screen tablets called Bent necks and twisted wrists: exploring the impact of touch-screen tablets on the posture of office workers. Their findings show that the lack of screen adjustability and the virtual keyboard encourage poor posture and can lead to discomfort in a number of body areas, especially in the neck and wrists.

A Swiss study found lower back pain in children as young as six and a study in Finland found that MSD symptoms were common amongst adolescents and this was linked to computer use or gaming for more than two hours per day.

Lack of education or ignorance?

Young people tend to have a limited understanding of well-being and whether being comfortable is the same as being risk-free. Many have adopted a range of poor postures from a young age and for many years will feel no adverse effects. Despite efforts from ergonomists, medical practitioners, charities, pressure groups and caring parents, poor posture and its long term effects are not discussed in schools and universities. As a result, the level of knowledge is low to non-existent.

The attitude of many people is that there isn’t a problem. Their dining table and chairs feel comfortable enough and they are so engrossed in their activities they won’t notice the stiffness and pain until they finally decide to move. The lack of lumbar support from kitchen chairs and stools, armchairs or sofas will not be considered, along with the hunched and rounded position of neck and shoulders. If there is an ache or tingling at the end of a four-hour session it will be dismissed with a shrug.

According to an American study (Manchikanti, 2000) 28 per cent of the industrial population will suffer from lower back pain and eight per cent will be “disabled” in any given year. People with back problems have, on average, more than ten days off work per episode. The average time between episodes is five years. For a 21 year-old retiring at 71 that is 100 days lost. The desire or, as some see it, the necessity to be constantly connected conflicts with traditional attitudes to hanging postures and the desirability of varying activities.

The solution

There are simple equipment-related solutions that can reduce the risk of health issues, starting with the traditional office environment. The right basic equipment has to be in place before you can hope to start tackling the many habits, especially if you are spending extended periods of time in the office.

So what makes an ergonomical workplace?

  • Correct desks and chairs must be provided with all the necessary adjustability. If these are being used by a peripatetic workforce they must be adaptable for all the uses to which they will be put.
  • A fixed desktop computer available for use by different employees on a ‘hot desk’ basis must be adjustable to the needs of all the users.
  • Laptop docking should be provided, where possible. This will be easier if machines are sourced to a common specification. The laptop user should at least have access to separate screen and keyboard.
  • Using sit/stand desk products such as the TabletRiser, UltraStand and Workfit-T are attractive, intuitive and effective. Ensure all employees are using them correctly (see our SitStandCOACH for help).
  • If your organisation has a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy, understand that policy and its impact on the use of devices at work.
  • Taking regular breaks from devices and screens. Your energy levels will improve as well as your productivity, especially if you use this time to walk around the office. Take a look at our Rest Break Software for workers.

Responsibility of employers

Employers need to address not just the pre-existing MSDs and health conditions of new, young employees but also their attitudes. A different type of ergonomics education and a different approach to it will be needed to ensure the message gets through. We must integrate behaviour-change programmes into their well-being initiatives and, for maximum impact, ensure they use the latest technologies such as social media to convey their message. Put in place an effective DSE programme in the workplace to improve employee wellbeing and productivity.

Because of the increasingly blurred line between work and personal activities, these issues are very hard to manage. Many employers struggle to understand how far they can go when managing young workers. How much do you know about what happens to your employees outside of work? You need to know how much exposure to technology and poor posture could be bringing MSD problems into work, especially where work may be blamed for issues that it is not responsible for.

The advice, training and support offered by employers must extend to the extra-curricular activities of staff and needs to be designed to address the ignorance and careless attitudes that prevail among young workers. Educating them on the risks and convincing them of the benefits of good practice is essential.

Take some time to consider the return on investment offered by an effective ergonomics risk management policy. A relatively small outlay now will deliver huge benefits in terms of staff well-being and productivity in the longer-term.

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