I first experienced severe repetitive strain injury working in a collaborative workspace. In one room, we all sat at big communal tables, sharing from a pool of laptops. The office design was supposed to encourage spontaneous interactions and brainstorming. For me, it was noisy, invasive, and frantic, particularly on the days when I was unlucky enough to be the last to arrive in the morning and there were no chairs or laptops left. It was pretty typical to spend about 20 minutes every morning scrambling for a laptop and then a seat as in some bizarre version of musical chairs. Then we would all crawl around on hands and knees trying to plug in to the shared outlets and pulling leads up through the holes in the middle of the tables.
Music was another big part of the space. We had a sound system that we took turns plugging our individual iPods into. When it was my turn, I’d ask if we could have no music, but eventually someone would plug in, thinking I’d just forgotten it was my day to play DJ. It was supposed to be a paperless office, so the only storage space we were given was a tiny pigeon hole which was open for all to see inside. I never fully appreciated the value of a desk drawer until then.
People were always squirrelling away paper files wherever they could find a hiding place. I regularly found notes on projects I had nothing to do with stuffed into my pigeon hole. It would not be an overstatement to say that I found working there totally stressful. And I know I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the setup of this office, as people were always hiding away in the meeting rooms when they were “trying to get work done.” My feelings toward the environment combined with long hours on laptops with no information about safe workstation set up, ended up having a devastating effect on my health.
At first, I tried to work through the pain in my hands, arms, neck and back, telling myself that it was all part of work or attributing it to other factors, eg, sleeping funny, lifting something heavy, or overdoing it in an exercise class. There was always a reason other than long hours in static, awkward postures compounded by the stress I felt working in an office that felt more like a circus to me. In the end, I had to stop working completely for several years due to the physical pain I was in. I sought (and continue to seek) advice and treatments from a long list of doctors and practitioners. But the best advice I ever got was from a massage therapist who told me: “find what works for you.”
Although he was talking about treatment options, I believe this is true too when it comes to deciding on the physical environment in which we work. Now I know the importance of a good computer workstation set up. This is not only important to your physical health, it can also have an impact on your mental health.
Research conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University shows a direct correlation between poorly-equipped desks and musculoskeletal disorders, which can lead to serious long-term conditions such as mental health problems. I’ve also learned that work environments need boundaries. Employees should have access to quiet space as much as needed, whether it’s at the office or the option to work at home. It’s important that we learn to trust ourselves and listen to our bodies (and mind) when something feels wrong. Good workstation set up is really important, but so is a work environment that fits with the way we work. Our good health depends on it. Raquel Baetz helps companies keep their employees healthy and safe from musculoskeletal disorders. She is an independent computer workstation risk assessor, qualified via the British Safety Council. Raquel draws on her personal experience with chronic repetitive strain injury to inform the advice she gives. She works in the US and the UK. For info, visit http://safehandsdse.com/wp/ For your daily ergonomic tip, follow Raquel on Twitter.