I believe in the power of ergonomics to improve my work experience and, ultimately, my life. I believe this for a few reasons. One, because it’s a discipline that’s been shaped and informed by smart, capable, and hardworking people. Two, there are millions of people around the world who have applied it’s principles and products to reduce the severity of physical and mental conditions and reduce the amount of daily strain they experience. Three, I’ve personally seen it make my tendonitis more manageable, help me sleep better, and increase my productivity.
But if you are skeptical, or even critical, of ergonomics, these things won’t necessarily convince you. Or maybe you do believe in ergonomics, but you are struggling to bring others around to your view. Either way, more anecdotes and blogs aren’t what you need. You need numbers, data that clearly outlines the benefits of ergonomics. Numbers around the problems it prevents, but more importantly, the improvements it can bring.
This article is to bring you those numbers. Because those numbers are important, as is their context. Let’s review how we measure what ergonomics can do, and how it’s for more than just improving the workplace, it’s about improving everyone’s experience.
Pain Should Not, and Cannot, Be the Focus
It’s been proven that, when selling people products or services, it’s better to get them focused on the pain of their current condition. This is more effective than trying to sell them on the idea of a “better” life they could live. For whatever reason, human beings remember pain more clearly, feel losses more strongly, and are motivated to buy things that solve pain and prevent loss.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work as well when discussing why we should implement ergonomics. First, if you wait until the pain caused by bad ergonomics is bad enough to notice, you will wait a lot longer than you should. Imagine a worker approaches their manager with a wrist injury. What is the likelihood that the worker will 1) know the injury is from keyboard use 2) confidently assert that to their manager 3) be heard and believed by their manager and 4) receive any appropriate compensation or treatment?
Acknowledging the difficulties there, you can see how it’s not necessarily the best strategy to sell by targeting a pain that people are not comfortable discussing and that those responsible are incentivized to ignore. Furthermore, even if you overcome those difficulties, implementing a solution can take many forms. Any good salesman will also tell you that selling an idea is a lot harder than selling a product.
Even more complicated, if you want to improve office ergonomics, you can do it on an individual level (e.g. buying better chairs and keyboards) and you can do it on an environmental/cultural level (e.g. improved behaviors, better lighting). That means measuring how ergonomics improves your office requires measuring large scale changes. Assessing issues like overall employee morale and productivity take time and are hard to quantify. Even worse, you can’t prove how many cases of tendonitis or bursitis you would have had if you hadn’t implemented ergonomics.
Given these challenges, it means that measuring the effectiveness/value of ergonomics has to be about more than reducing injury rates. It has to be about improvements you see over time. How did productivity change, or employee engagement? Did the quality of work improve? What about your customer’s reported experience, did that go up? These are questions we may not think to ask, but are absolutely relevant to understanding the power of ergonomics.
Worker’s Injuries are Expensive
Our analysis of the value of ergonomics must include improvements, but the numbers around pain are still important. They can also be stunning for any employer. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) alone accounted for 1/3 of the total work time employers lost. You know what else they found? The workers who injuries directly related to ergonomics issues ended up needing even more time off than the other “more serious” injuries.
The time lost was just the beginning of the costs the BLS discovered. When employers had to start paying for treatment via workers comp, the total costs went up another $15 – $20 billion. When they factored in the cost of the treatment burden on the health system, it was another $45 – $54 billion.
Stress Injuries have Long-Term Impacts
Of course, there’s more to a workplace injury than how expensive it is to the employer. If you develop tendinitis at work, it doesn’t go away once you quit or retire. According to the World Health Organization, 16% of global incidence of disability are due to MSDs. You see what that means? 16% of people who are considered disabled for life are disabled because of MSDs.
That same report goes on to highlight how having a disability is about more than just being limited in your quality of life. Being disabled means you are more likely to develop depression or other chronic health conditions.
When viewed with this knowledge, the pain that ergonomics proposes to prevent is much more appealing.
Employee Engagement Impacts Your Bottom Line
However, as we said, understanding the value of ergonomics is about more than just eliminating the risk of injury. It’s about raising the quality of the workspace, productivity, and morale.
In recent decades, one of the primary focuses of modern employers has been on improving engagement. Not everyone agrees on what engagement is, but a rough idea is, how committed are your employees to doing the work they do well, if at all? You can see why employers would care about this. You want committed employees. You also want your employees to talk about their workspace well, you want them to tell other people that it’s a great place to work.
One study demonstrates that improved ergonomics can give you as much as a $17 return on every dollar you invest in ergonomics. A portion of that benefit is because you reduce the costs of employee turnover and in improved recruitment rates. On the flip side, some reports suggest that not
When BMW implemented ergonomics changes, they were targeting a common problem for major corporations like them: a large workforce that spans multiple generations having different needs to work productively. They were trying to improve their manufacturing process, and it worked. They saw 7% improvements in employee productivity. Even better, when the employees had opportunities to shift to other groups, all the employees said they were happy with their new workspace.
Ergo web also identified productivity improvements in a range of industries for half a dozen different businesses. Some employers saw reduced costs in terms of less parts required on a daily basis. Others saw improved sales and higher morale numbers. What every employer saw was a benefit to making ergonomic changes that increased the value of their business.
The General Quality of the Environment
When measuring improved productivity, there’s something that often gets overlooked. It’s about more than just having the same employees doing the same work faster. Are they actually able to do better work? For example, in customer service, the number of calls you handle is important, but so is the quality of each call itself. If ergonomic changes mean that a call center employee is going to have more calls where the customer has a positive experience, the better it is for your business.
While the numbers here are limited, this is something that has been reported across the board. Employers that take the time to invest in ergonomics see an improved reaction from their customers and their employees. Everyone recognizes that the employer is making a positive investment in the workspace and the work force. They are demonstrating that they care about their employee’s experience and the experience of their customers. While the hard impact of those investments is not always easy to measure, it is something that everyone can point out.
Mental Health and Well Rested
Two of the primary benefits ascribed to good ergonomics are the value of improved mental health and improved energy levels. When you understand a little more about the origins of ergonomics, it’s easier to see where this is coming from. We talk about it more here, but one of the other names for ergonomics is ‘human factors’. Human factors includes issues like how much energy every action takes, and what mental toll does the workplace take.
If ergonomics is designed to help improve employee mood overall, what are the numbers around the value of improving employee morale while on the job? It touches on a lot of areas. Employees in a better mental state are more likely to show up to work on time, if at all. They’re more likely to stick around, to support their coworkers, and to respond to customer issues with energy.
A quick caveat here: it’s important to distinguish decent morale/mental state from what employers use to chase, happiness. The research around happiness is limited and inconclusive. Some people believe the goal is to help your employees be happier; others believe that happiness can actually be counterproductive, even exhausting to your employees.
Whatever the direct impact, improving morale can have big results. One study showed that raising employee morale can raise productivity by as much as 20%. If ergonomics can contribute to that much of a bump, how can you leave that money on the table?
What about just reducing the amount of energy it takes to do the job? I doubt there’s an employee or a manager on the planet who doesn’t believe that a lack of sleep is a modern day scourge. It makes employees more irritable, less effective, and much more likely to make mistakes. It also often leads to a compounding issue. Tired employees start making mistakes, which requires more work from them to fix and more work from their coworkers.
A report from Deloitte about the value of rest makes this issue abundantly clear. Here, the focus was on encouraging employees to get more sleep, the numbers around the value of sleep and the challenges therein work across the board.
Workers were 70% more likely to experience a workplace injury or cause one when they weren’t well rested. They were also more likely to skip work entirely, as well as to engage in behaviors people often overlook like unethical stealing or cheating on the job.
Needless to say, if ergonomics can improve morale and help your employees get better rest, it’s worth your time.
The Numbers Don’t Lie, and They Do Help
Ergonomics has a long and varied history. It’s covered hundreds of different ideas, industries, countries, and millions of people. It can make bold claims about eliminating all sorts of problems that are scourges of the modern workplace. Chances are you know at least one person who will say great things about what ergonomics can do for others and what it has done for them in particular.
However, we all need a little more than just anecdotes to help us understand why making an investment in new equipment, practices, and office setups is worth our time and money. Employers especially are struggling to make ends meet, and it can seem like it’s better to wait for disasters to crop up and respond to them than it is for us to focus on solving problems before they even occur. When you compound these factors with how much easier it is to sell solutions to pain, and with the challenge of even speaking up about ergonomic issues, truly pursuing an ergonomic improvement program is daunting.
However, there is some real value to be unlocked here. It’s about more than just avoiding negative problems like less injuries or even debilitating conditions for you and your employees. It’s about having a better place to work that improves your engagement. It’s about getting more value out of the work that your employees are doing and giving them more reason to believe in their own value. It’s about improving the value of your customer’s experiences and your employee’s likeliness to stay.
These are all things that ergonomics improves. When you look at what ergonomics is designed to address, it’s not surprising. When you start using it yourself, the value is clear. And when you start tracking the factors that improve the value of your business before and after ergonomics changes, you can see the real worth of the whole system.