Repetitive motion injuries are a real thing. Bad posture is also a real thing. So, it make sense to have "ergonomically correct" office furniture to help keep our bodies functioning as well as possible--and to help prevent pain. But what if all the money we spend making sure everything is ergonomic isn't really helping?

Sydney University professor Chris Maher, a leading authority on back pain, says that the evidence for ergonomics is slim. According to an interview Maher gave to The Age exercise is the only thing that has been shown to reduce and prevent back pain.

Maybe it's time to dump the ergonomic chairs and hand out gym memberships.

That isn't to say some things aren't better than other.

Leon Straker, the British National Health Service's first ergonomist, gave a bit of a snarky answer to the question on what the best ergonomic chair is, "I say 'a wooden church bench'. Because you'll feel so uncomfortable that you'll have to get up after a half-hour."

But don't we have proof that ergonomic chairs, desks, etc, work?

You would think so, and there are many articles that tell us how fabulous they are and how they can save money in the long run. Humantech did a study in 2014 that determined huge cost savings based on having a person dedicated to ensuring ergonomic correctness in the workplace.

But, Humantech is a consulting firm that provides ergonomic solutions. That's a bit of a bias right there. But even more interesting, in the midst of their claims of success, with their deep dive into six companies there's this admission: "Two companies reported no change in their injury and illness rates, and one actually experienced a slight uptick."

That's 50 percent of the companies studied. Which makes me wonder what would have happened in any company, regardless of ergonomic interventions. Injuries are never perfectly constant, so you'd expect some to increase and some to decrease even if no changes were made.

But, the more important finding was not the injury rate, but rather the engagement and productivity rates. There were real increases there.

So, perhaps, it's not a reduction in injury that comes from ergonomic interventions, but a feeling that the company cares. When someone cares, it makes a difference in your attitude.

Imagine if you said, "I'm having back pain," and your boss said, "Here's a wooden church bench. It will encourage you to walk around every 30 minutes." He may be right, but you'd be angry. If, instead, he buys you an expensive, fancy chair, you think, "wow, my boss cares about me!"

And if you have real productivity gains--that's worth the investment. And there's also a huge difference from a different chair to a device that helps prevent repetitive motion injuries.

But, the cautions are there--don't jump headfirst into spending a huge amount of money on ergonomics without looking at the studies that relate to the equipment being used. And keep in mind that if an employee complains that a particular keyboard makes it worse for her, it makes it worse for her.

Published on: Oct 5, 2018