Rise of the machines

Technology is the cause of a new crop of workplace injuries, but it’s also part of the solution.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Cellphone elbow and Blackberry thumb.

Those are two of the new workplace injuries wreaking havoc on offices across the land, and most workers probably aren’t even aware of the true culprit of their pain.

That scourge: technology. The same thing that’s streamlining workflow and making businesses faster and more efficient is simultaneously taking a toll on our bodies.

“Computers and technology have invaded pretty much every work area, whether you’re in manufacturing or an office environment,” notes Mary Hughes, an injury prevention coordinator with Fort HealthCare. “The increase of computers and technology has had a huge impact, and not just in traditional offices, but also with people working from home. It’s a different type of workplace injury in many cases, but the injuries and discomfort are still happening.

“I think there’s a common misbelief that because I sit at a desk all day and I’m not doing anything really physical, that I shouldn’t get hurt. And we’re finding out that’s simply not true.”

As an occupational therapist, Hughes says the most common workplace injuries she sees have to do with posture — injuries affecting the neck, upper back, and shoulders — because employees often sit hunched over their computers and other devices, and that doesn’t always end when they leave the workplace. Poor posture, combined with a sedentary workplace, makes for frequent health problems.

The right medicine

Coinciding with the rate at which technology has embedded itself into our workspaces has been the increase in corporate wellness programs. Whereas the value of these programs was once widely debated, companies are coming around to the idea that wellness programs actually do have a net benefit on the bottom line.

“Employers are realizing it’s not just about being illness- or disease-free,” explains Hughes, “but we actually want people to engage in wellness, be productive, and healthy mentally and emotionally, as well.”

Hughes notes the indirect costs of increased employee absenteeism due health-related issues can be two to three times as much as the direct medical costs. As such, companies with health promotion programs average a 28% reduction in sick leave, a 30% reduction in workers’ compensation and disability management claims, and a 26% reduction in health costs.

“Wellness programs, in general, are real money savers,” Hughes says.

More recently, corporate wellness programs have also become a key recruitment and retention strategy for employers, notes Jessica Raddemann, executive director of the Wellness Council of Wisconsin. “Employees are looking to their companies for assistance in helping them live well and employers are upping the ante with wellness programs that will attract top talent and retain existing talent.”

Raddemann, who is also a faculty member for the Wellness Council of America, says the overall health of the American workforce is not good and employees’ unhealthy lifestyles can be very costly to organizations.

“With the health status of the American workforce waning, employers would be well-advised to consider taking immediate and significant measures to enhance employee health and productivity,” Raddemann says. “To do nothing in a time of rapidly escalating health care costs is simply not an option, and modest investments in workplace wellness programs result in significant savings. To combat rising health care costs and to improve employee health, many employers are beginning to realize the workplace wellness programs are a wise investment.”

To achieve the best possible results, Raddemann says it’s crucial to spend time planning and evaluating your program.

In recent years, programs have become more complex, offering greater interventions, incentives, and even onsite clinics. These programs can generally be divided into two buckets — activity-centered and results-oriented.

An activity-centered program is made up of isolated events, such as heart health education that takes place during February and one-time walks or runs in the summer. While there is “feel good” value in these initiatives, they usually do not produce the bottom-line results most organizations — and management teams — are looking for when they invest in wellness, Raddemann explains

Results-oriented programs, on the other hand, are carefully planned and implemented to address the health concerns of an organization and its employees’ wellness needs and interests. They deliver concrete outcomes. “Only by collecting baseline data and conducting program evaluation can you show that your initiative is having an impact,” says Raddemann.

After more than 20 years of research, the Wellness Council of America determined that a results-oriented program can be developed by following seven steps. This process, called the Well Workplace Process, or the 7C’s, consists of:

  1. Capturing senior-level support
  2. Creating a cohesive wellness team
  3. Collecting data
  4. Crafting an operating plan
  5. Choosing appropriate interventions
  6. Creating supportive environments
  7. Carefully evaluating outcomes

“It is benchmarks No. 3 and No. 7 that truly begin to make a program results-oriented,” Raddemann notes. As programs become more complex, program evaluation is a critical step. There are many ways for a company to evaluate its wellness efforts, including:

  • Program participation — Make note of how many people sign up to participate in challenges, screenings, or interventions. To take it a step further, compare that to the number of participants who complete the program.
  • Participant satisfaction — Get your participants’ feedback. This shows that you value their input and allows you to act quickly when issues arise.
  • Changes in knowledge — Consider conducting a quiz before and after each intervention to see what your participants learned.
  • Self-reported behavior change surveys — Ask your participants whether their behaviors changed as a result of your efforts. For example, how many minutes did you exercise per week before our program? After participating?
  • Changes in risk factors — Compare your aggregate health risk assessment and/or biometric screening results year over year. Review your medical, disability, and workers’ compensation claims data to uncover the impact of your program.



Using tech to save us from tech

Even the biggest Luddite among us has to admit computers aren’t going anywhere. So, in a digital age, where else would we turn for relief than new technology designed to make us healthier?
Raddemann says employers are increasingly creating work environments that promote increased physical activity during the working day. There are several ways that this can be done: standing workstations, treadmill desks, bike stations, on-site fitness centers and classes, walking paths and trails, indoor walking paths, walking programs that increase camaraderie, redesigning workstations, recess at work, software to remind people to move, stretch breaks, and movement policies.

“It is important to note that organizational culture will be key to creating supportive environments like one of movement in an organization,” notes Raddemann. “Organizations can talk about employees moving well but if the organization’s values, norms, and leadership do not support it, behavior change will be difficult.”

Hughes agrees, advising employers to actually make wellness programs mandatory. “It needs to be part of the job, otherwise people aren’t going to do it,” she says.

Hughes notes that technology is making the idea of health care, wellness, and preventing illnesses so much more accessible for people.

“It’s much easier for us to realize the impact, and quickly, of some of the choices we make,” Hughes says. “Now, you’re not just going for your physical once a year. You can actually look at that FitBit information and start to see, ‘Wow, I’m doing well’ or ‘Uh-oh, maybe I’m not.’ We’re getting a much more immediate response that really helps to keep people engaged in their own health.”

Raddemann says the Wellness Council of Wisconsin polled its membership about the use of tech trends like FitBits in a January e-newsletter, asking “Does your organization use wearable fitness trackers to monitor employee activity?” With over 300 responses, 30% of employers stated the devices are currently part of their 2015 wellness program and 17% stated they will be integrating them in 2016.

It doesn’t all have to be high tech

Just because FitBits and ergonomically designed workstations that let employees transition from sitting to standing with literally a push of a button are becoming more and more popular, it doesn’t mean employers and employees can’t still make do with low-tech variations.

“Simply changing position, incorporating movement in your day, and stretching are huge,” says Hughes. “We tend to get lost sitting in front of our computer and pretty soon we’re stiff and sore. Sometimes people don’t even attribute it to their posture. They think that headache is just from the stress of their day, which, in part, it is.”

Hughes recommends employees take advantage of what’s around them. “There’s any number of stretches available on the Internet that employers and employees can look up. And if an employee doesn’t have a standing workstation, I advocate if people have one of those tall vertical file cabinets, they pull out one of the drawers, set their work on it, and stand for a while.”

By the same token, holding a walking meeting, going for a walk on your lunch break, and parking at the far end of the parking lot are simple, low-tech ways to build a little more movement into your workday, Hughes says.
But the best thing workers can do to avoid some of the more common workplace injuries related to technology — especially cellphones — is simply to stop using it (for a little while).

“The best thing is to take a break from it,” Hughes says. “As the devices get smaller and smaller, we’re using smaller and smaller muscles, which simply don’t have the resilience that our larger, stronger muscles do. They are more prone to the kind of inflammation that we would call tendonitis. So thumbs, elbows — if you’re walking around with your elbow bent up to your ear all day, yeah, your elbow is going to hurt. Sometimes what people think of as carpal tunnel really might be starting elsewhere in the arm or even in the neck.

“Put it down for a while, straighten that arm out,” adds Hughes. “Or use your speakerphone. Instead of texting constantly, maybe actually call someone. It’s repetition that will get to people, and there are ways to break up that repetition.”



Workplace wellness grants for small biz

Amid all the talk about wellness programs saving companies money, Wisconsin has a program in place that can actually make money for companies — or at least offset some of the costs from wellness programs implemented by small businesses.

Wisconsin’s Workplace Wellness Grant Program was spawned from Wisconsin Act 137, legislation that was enacted in March 2014 to provide grants to small businesses that create workplace wellness programs.

Key aspects of the law include:
■ $3 million per year for grants to reimburse workplaces with wellness programs.
■ Only small businesses (50 or fewer employees) establishing workplace wellness programs are eligible for the grant.
■ The grant pays for 30% of wellness program costs for one year, and each workplace can only apply once.
■ No grants may be awarded after Dec. 31, 2018.

Resources, training, and case studies are available on the grant program’s website, https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/physical-activity/worksite/index.htm.

The state has made available a wellness resource kit, located at https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/physical-activity/worksite/kit.htm, which debuted in 2010 to assist worksites with implementing strategies that have been proven to be effective. The second edition of the kit provides additional information based on feedback from pilot users. The kit provides information to implement a broad range of strategies or programming; some strategies require very little or no resources while others may require considerable resources. The kit shows employers how to get started and make a difference in the health of their employees, regardless of the size of their worksite and its available resources.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.