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Corporate high flyers: the unintended victims of the paperless office


29 August 2012

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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 new University of Sydney research.

The study, published in this month's edition of WORK: a Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, found that moves since the 1980s to improve occupational health and safety 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.

Eighty-five percent of people who spent more than eight hours a day working with a computer experienced neck pain, 74 percent reported shoulder pain and 70 percent 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," says Karin Griffiths, lead author of the research and doctoral candidate in the University's Faculty of Health Sciences.

"Better workstation design, seating and health education has not resulted in any 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," she says.

As part of her 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.

"Though traditionally it was predominantly non-professional employees such as secretaries, data entry and call centre workers who were subjected to long hours of computer-based work, now all office workers, including more highly skilled or senior employees such as architects and engineers, tend to spend a longer day in front of the computer and so are more likely than ever before to experience musculoskeletal pain," Griffiths says.

"Non-professional groups have generally been the focus of research in this area, so I felt that the literature was neglecting managers and higher level employees. Anyone who works in an office knows that whatever your occupation and level of seniority, you're likely to be spending long hours every day at a computer."

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 says.

Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au