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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

A problem worth solving – but how

The risks of smartphone use have been exposed in a new study led by the University of South Australia. The survey finds a direct correlation between neck, back pain and musculoskeletal problems and the use of smartphones ( 15th January 2019).

This highlights a major issue which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Sadly, there are 6.1 million Australians with arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and back problems). More than half of those with these conditions are between the age of 25 and 64 years – the prime working age population.

It affects productivity, places an enormous burden on the health system and causes pain and disability. An ageing population over the next two decades will cause a surge in the numbers impacted.

In many cases, workers aren’t helped by technology which is making work life more sedentary. Research by the University of Perth shows that over 50% of the time we are sitting down is while we’re at work.

But what should companies do to help their workers?

Traditionally employers have looked to good office ergonomics (how offices are designed and equipped). This might include doing risk assessments, adjusting monitors and keyboards, changing desks and chairs or installing new keyboards and mice; all designed to prevent office work-related injuries.

Indeed, every year many millions is spent on ergonomic chairs, desks, keyboards and consultants.

But this whole approach has been challenged by leading academics.

Chris Maher is an expert in back pain at the University of Sydney. ‘Ergonomics does not have a firm base in science,’ he says ‘and ergonomic interventions lack scientific evidence to show they work. I have been astonished that the ergonomics industry has been allowed to get away with this for so long.’ (Sydney Morning Herald: 30th September 2018).

Many standard solutions, like adjustable desks, lack evidence to show they work. Worse still, people could be advising in the industry when they lack qualifications (there are less than 100 qualified ergonomists in Australia).

In Maher's view:

  • Standing desks: ‘there’s no evidence they are effective for controlling work-related musculoskeletal disorders.’ (This is confirmed also study by the University of Perth study which found a correlation between prolonged standing at work and lower-back problems).

  • Ergonomic redesigns of the workplace: ‘We don’t know if that works.

  • Interventions to cut back pain: ‘People still think about fancy chairs, fancy desks. If you’re going to invest in trying to cut back pain, your best bet is to do ... exercises. That’s the only thing that’s got evidence for it.’

University of Queensland professor, Venerina Johnston, conducted a trial on ergonomic interventions to reduce the impact of neck pain in office workers. ‘Generally, ergonomic interventions don’t show much change in terms of musculoskeletal problems,’ Johnston concluded. In fact, productivity decreased after the intervention.

So, there you have it. At the end of the day, it may be the thought that the company is doing something that makes the employee feel better? But there’s no scientific evidence to prove that…either.

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