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Can ergonomics in the workplace boost employee retention?

Business leaders may be inclined to think of ergonomics in the workplace as a safety or comfort issue. Picture comfy chairs and computer wrist support pads.

But there’s much more to it than that.

In fact, it’s well-documented that an ergonomic workplace can positively impact employee performance and overall wellness. This makes sense if you think about it. When a workspace is tailored to fit someone’s individual needs, they’re empowered to work comfortably, productively and safely.

Problems caused by an inadequate physical environment include a host of health conditions, such as fatigue, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, back injuries, colds and flu, heat stroke, eye strain, headaches and more.

In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 31 percent of all worker injuries fall into the category of sprains and strains, with employees needing on average 12 days to recuperate before returning to work.

These illnesses and injuries cost employers in absenteeism, lost productivity and, quite often, higher insurance premiums. But what about employee attrition? Isn’t it likely that a good employee will go find another job rather than continue to work in unsafe or uncomfortable conditions for too long?

This is where workplace ergonomics comes in – and why it should be part of your employee retention strategy.

Defining workplace ergonomics

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines ergonomics as “the science of designing the job to fit the worker, rather than physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job.

OSHA goes on to say, “Adapting tasks, work stations, tools and equipment to fit the worker can help reduce physical stress on a worker’s body and eliminate many potentially serious, disabling work-related musculoskeletal disorders.”

So, anything that may cause an employee to get hurt or be physically uncomfortable while working falls under the guise of workplace ergonomics.

Yes, adjustable desk chairs and back braces are part of workplace ergonomics. However, so is adequate lighting and temperature control, access to water, clean bathrooms, machinery in proper working order, and employee education.

If you aren’t sure what your team may need to improve ergonomics in the workplace, ask your office furniture supplier or professional employer organization (PEO) whether they have a specialist on staff. A consultant with this sort of expertise can help your company find affordable ways to improve your workplace ergonomics and possibly even provide training or a lunch-and-learn on the topic.

Promoting health through education

It’s not enough to simply provide the tools, you must also educate your workforce about proper use of ergonomics in the workplace.

New employees, both those new to the workforce or new to your company, may especially benefit from a quick crash course on the basics of ergonomics. It sets the right tone when your onboarding process includes helping each new employee get the tools and supplies they need to work comfortably and safely on their first day or week.

For office workers, that may include tips on proper chair height, desk posture, keyboard use and eye strain. Many companies now offer convertible desks that allow employees to switch back and forth from sitting and standing to work.

Workers in physically demanding roles may need to be trained on good lifting techniques and the proper way to wear a back brace. It’s also a good idea to consistently remind them to ask for help with objects over a certain weight.

People who are driving for the company, whether it’s a delivery truck or an outside salesperson, should have the tools to work comfortably from their vehicles (if that’s required).

All employees should be encouraged to stay hydrated and take stretch breaks at appropriate intervals. When you communicate with employees, make it clear that everyone is able to adjust any equipment they use to suit their physical needs in order to maximize both safety and productivity.

And reinforce with younger employees that workplace safety isn’t just for their older colleagues. Even younger bodies are susceptible to muscle strain, soft tissue injuries and eye strain.

By providing your employees with a workspace that meets their individual needs, along with the instruction they need to make the most of it, you send a positive message. Your workers will see first-hand that your company cares enough to devote time and resources to their well-being, which can contribute to increased retention.

Including your remote staff

It can be easy to forget about your off-site employees who are either working from their home office or a co-working space. The fact is, you’re still responsible for the health and safety of those out-of-sight workers because they’re protected by worker’s compensation laws, too.

That means you need to ask questions about their work arrangements.

Does Kendall have a desk and office chair, or is she planning to work on her laptop from her couch? Does she know that sitting for three hours straight on her sofa, while hunched over her computer, is bad for her back?

For those employees who’ve made the neighborhood coffee shop their personal office space, remind them that these are retail establishments designed for coziness and conversation. They’re not typically developed with proper workplace ergonomics in mind.

With remote jobs becoming ever more common, it’s vital all managers be mindful of the physical work arrangements of these staff members. Show you care about their health, safety and productivity, no matter where your employees are working.

And if you’re concerned about the working conditions of your remote team members, consider making a house call to help them get set up. Or you could request that they text you pictures, so you or your design consultant can offer suggestions for improvement.

Making ergonomics fun

Ergonomics in the workplace doesn’t have to be a drudgery. You can make it fun.

For instance, form a team of employees who promote good ergonomic habits among their fellow workers through various activities.

These employee leaders can distribute educational materials and periodically walk around to check things like their coworkers’ physical space and lifting techniques. You may want to reward employees with prizes for things like the best posture, safest workspace or best use of safety equipment.

Have this team make a full assessment of all work environments at your company every six to 12 months. Create a checklist for what they should look for. When this committee makes recommendations, listen to them. These are the people who will tell you what’s working and what isn’t.

Most employees either don’t want to make a fuss or think being uncomfortable is simply part of the job. Forming an ergonomics committee made up of employees can break down those barriers and help you get the information you need to make your workplace safer and more productive.

For example, Becky, the new administrative assistant, may feel more comfortable asking for a foot rest or a different chair from a fellow employee, versus telling her boss why she sits with her feet propped on a box.

By creating a culture that supports safety and ergonomic best practices, you make your employees feel valued and cared for. Nothing promotes retention like a workplace that’s comfortable and safe, where all employees are empowered to be productive and do their best work.

Looking for more ways to optimize your workforce? Download our free e-magazine: Insperity guide to employee engagement.