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What is ergonomic office design?

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty of biomechanics, anthropometry and all that jazz, let us first give a simple answer to the question that we hear time and time again – what is ergonomic office design? In a nutshell, ergonomic design involves adapting the workspace to suit the needs and activities of those using it. No longer do humans have to work around the design; the design now caters for the activities and requirements of those using it.

While human-centric design is a prominent topic in the industry right now, it certainly isn’t a new concept – just think of the Spinning Jenny which was invented during the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century. In 1717, Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini actually published a book called The Disease of Workers which discussed the links between various common work tasks of the era and the consequential cumulative trauma disorders, so we aren’t exploring uncharted ground here.

Design for human use can even be traced right back to the Stone Age when our ancestor’s ancestors were creating functional hand tools for cutting wood and hunting animals for food. So as we continue through our explanation of ergonomic office design, think of the cave people as your workforce and their hunting tools your modern workspace facilities…

Good example of ergonomic office design

Why are ergonomics so important?

Simply put, the physical condition of workers has a massive impact on productivity levels and the bottom line of business. Similarly, the mental state of workers has a direct influence on their cognitive behaviour and ability to concentrate so it’s essential that you use ergonomic design to improve both the physical and mental wellbeing of your staff.

As Martin Helander points out in his book A Guide to Human Factors and Ergonomics, ergonomic design is rarely the end objective – it is the means by which business owners and employers can improve associated factors such as workforce safety and productivity.

What the 2017 Health & Safety Executive statistics are saying:

The most recent edition of the Health & Safety Executive statistics revealed that…

  • There were 507,000 work-related musculoskeletal disorder cases in 2016/2017
  • 159,000 of these were new musculoskeletal disorder cases
  • There were over 31 million working days lost in the UK due to work-related ill health
  • 8.9 million of these lost working days were directly related to musculoskeletal problems

While these shocking numbers seemed to show some improvement during 2011 and 2012, they appear to have been flatlining since then, which is why making the effort to ensure your office is an ergonomic workspace is more important than ever. Musculoskeletal problems are just part of the bigger issue too. The repetitive strain injuries which Ramazzini shone the spotlight on as early as 1717 and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome which effects wrist mobility are also common work-related injuries today.

Work related ill health statistics 2017

In fact, according to research carried out by the manufacturers of Handshoe Mouse, one in six office workers suffers from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Incorporating ergonomic elements into your next office refurbishment will not only reduce discomfort like this for staff and boost productivity in the workplace, it will also minimise risk and injury costs for business owners and employers.

Technology and text neck

Modern technology is arguably the most prolific catalyst of recent efforts to implement a more ergonomic way of working with the development of devices and the subsequent rise of things like ‘text neck’.

What is text neck?

Steelcase recently revealed that of more than 11,000 workers, 45% use three different devices throughout the day (laptop, tablet and smartphone) and 13% use four. Experts like physiotherapist and ergonomist, Jan Tissing argue that workspace design today – office chairs in particular – aren’t keeping up with these new ways of consuming technology.

A lack of furniture to facilitate new lines of vision and device usage is causing phenomenon such as ‘text neck’ which is the damaging of spinal alignment as a result of heads being bent into a forward-down position for long periods of time with no adequate support. Regular office chairs force the spine into a C shape rather than its natural S shape as we assume this position, which then puts pressure on the spinal discs and can also impact internal organs.

What is text neck

It’s not just the neck and spine that are being affected either. The introduction of different technology means human arms have become more mobile and ergonomic office design is the process by which modern furniture concepts adapt to accommodate this. Following the launch of the iPad in 2010, Steelcase ran a study and discovered 30 different human postures, 9 of which were new postures evolved on account of technology and modern devices.

How to make an office more ergonomic:

Thankfully, there is a whole wealth of things you could be doing to combat issues like text neck and musculoskeletal disorders and it all boils down to ergonomic office design schemes. But how do you make an office more ergonomic?

Ergonomic office furniture

Installing specifically designed, human-centric furniture is perhaps the most effective way to make your workspace more ergonomic. Steelcase launched their Global Posture Study in response to the issues outlined above and as a result, developed their popular Gesture Chair. Gesture features a seat which moves in synchrony with the chair back to mimic how the human back and legs move together, as well as arms which replicate human motion and are mounted at the hip to enable a more flexible range of movement.

According to Steelcase’s research, office workers are now spending up to 80% of their time sat down which is detrimental to both health and productivity. Ergonomic office furniture will help keep circulation pumping, metabolism working and concentration in check. Experts recommend trying to implement a ‘sit, stand, walk’ routine throughout the day and something like the Ology sit-stand desks can support this.

Steelcase Ology sit stand office desks

Don’t forget your measurements

When choosing your office furniture, you need to look at products which permit unrestricted natural movement. Something like Ballo will allow freedom of movement and posture, as well as encouraging agile working to avoid becoming a static worker.

However, you also need to consider the measurements and proportions of the human body; anthropometry is the scientific study of these biomechanics. Anthropometry measures things like functional overhead reach to establish the maximum height of overhead controls, sitting elbow height to calculate optimum desk height and sitting eye height to determine position of monitors, screens and other visual displays.

Lighting and height adjustable screens

Ergonomic workspace design isn’t all about furniture – it’s also about visual and audio elements too. Traditional strip lighting that you would find in offices of bygone eras were harsh on the eyes and often reflected off computer screens. These days, light fixtures have become a lot softer and more considerate towards visual sensitivities. Incorporating this type of lighting along with ergonomic desktop mounts to aid screen height adjustment will improve both the comfort and performance of your staff.

Know your ABCs of acoustics

Creating a comfortably level of noise within the workspace is a lesser-known element of ergonomic office design but one that is equally significant. Excess noise can be distracting, frustrating and disrupt pivotal communications within the workplace. When you’ve finished here, head on over to our blog post about the ABCs of office acoustics to find out more about how you can use the Absorb, Block and Cover techniques to ensure your workforce is working in a comfortable environment which encourages creativity, motivation and concentration.

So just to conclude as simply as we started, it’s time to stop seeing sitting down as the enemy itself. Instead we need to look at how we are sitting and working, and how this impacts our physical health, mental wellbeing and ability to perform productively.

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