If you work in an office and spend hours in front of a computer, don’t think your ergonomic chair, standing desk or good posture will save you from poor health.
You are still just as likely to develop back, neck, wrist and shoulder injuries, while also increasing your chance of heart disease and diabetes.
An increasing dependence on computers to do a range of tasks almost negated the benefits of improved workstation design and education about posture, the lead author of a new study into computer work and musculoskeletal symptoms, Karin Griffiths, said.
“Workstation design has come a long way since the ’80s and they are good changes,” said Dr Griffiths, from the faculty of health science at the University of Sydney.
“But what I also found was the proportion of people reporting symptoms has not changed much despite this, which means workstation design is not enough to keep up with health issues that arise from paperless, IT-dominated offices.”
The survey of nearly 1000 workers across six government departments found those who spent the most hours working with a computer each day also reported the highest level of musculoskeletal injuries, with the neck particularly at risk of pain.
About 85 per cent of people who spent more than eight hours a day working at a computer experienced neck pain, 74 per cent reported shoulder pain and 70 per cent reported lower back pain, found the study, which is published in the latest WORK: a Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation.
“I know the amount of money organisations are putting into improved workstations and ergonomics, and it’s not that those changes aren’t important,” said Dr Griffiths, a physiotherapist.
“The problem is nearly everything can be done at the desk now – communication, library research, file retrieval, even meetings. It doesn’t matter how good the chair is, it is not going to address the health problem of what some researchers are calling ‘chair disease’.”
Exercising a few times a week was not enough to reverse the damage of frequent sitting, she said, and computer work may also contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
The hardest hit were people in senior or managerial positions because they were more likely to work at computers for long hours, Dr Griffiths said.
Nicholas Gilson, a lecturer in physical activity and health at the University of Queensland, recently studied standing desks to see if they cut the sedentary time of workers.
Employees in an open-plan office were given a choice of sitting and standing desks and were educated on the benefits of standing.
But one week later, their overall sedentary work time had not decreased and some workers did not use the standing desks at all.
“My main observation is that we typically deal with the important issues [that] research like this raises in a reactive way,” Dr Gilson said.
“Workers get these symptoms, then we try to treat the symptoms through the individual allocation of things like sit-stand desks. But we need to radically change the way we operate at work.”
Discouraging internal emails on the same floor, holding meetings while standing or walking, and work systems that require frequent standing breaks, such as those with telephones on a standing bench, are some of the strategies that researchers have suggested.
“Workers need environmental opportunities to frequently change posture from sitting to standing and moving in work tasks,” Dr Gilson said.
“This is not only going to benefit musculoskeletal issues, but also risk factors associated with chronic disease and in all likelihood, productivity and job satisfaction.”