Many of us regard our computers with some affection for the help they give in managing a huge variety of workplace tasks. However, computers can also pose various threats to employee wellbeing, both physical and psychological. Employers have an ethical and, usually, also a legal duty to ensure that best practices are followed to prevent injury and stress and to maximise employee wellbeing in all dimensions.
Threats to physical health
When computers first started becoming ubiquitous in the workplace, safety fears were quick to materialise. We now know that we are not going to be irradiated. Long term computer use is not going to fry our brains our ruin our eyesight. However, we also know that computers can indeed be hazardous to our health.
Employers have a responsibility to ensure that employee wellbeing is protected and respected. Employees also have a responsibility to make sure that they are familiar with recommendations for healthy computer use. Most of us have some bad habits when it comes to our computer usage. Employers have a key role to play in creating awareness of what those bad habits can do to our bodies. Problems include:
Pulled muscles, stiffness, headaches and other health problems are often a direct consequence of poor posture while working with computers. Laptops, which can be used while slouching on unsuitable chairs, don’t help. A well-designed chair that provides adequate lower back support and is adjusted to the person’s height is half the battle.
Poor posture is often the real culprit in so-called ‘repetitive strain injuries’. Repetitive movements are seldom harmful in themselves – typically they become problematic when the user is badly positioned, creating stress on muscles and ligaments.
To maximise employee wellbeing, employers may consider allowing people who suffer from strain injuries to use voice recognition software. All the usual commands (opening and saving files, switching windows and the like) can be carried out once the computer has been ‘trained’ to recognize the user’s voice.
Computer screens don’t damage the eyes and eye problems are usually the result of eye tiredness. This can be avoided by making sure screen brightness is properly adjusted. It may be necessary to adjust it as light changes through the day. Glare filters can help people with sensitive eyes
Screen positioning is also important for eye comfort. According to the American Optometric Association, it’s best to look down slightly at the screen, rather than up. Ideally, the screen should be about 50 centimeters away and about 10 centimeters (about 15-20 degrees) below the line of vision.
It’s important to rest the eyes, rather than gazing fixedly at the screen for long periods. Opticians recommend developing the habit of looking away for at least 20 seconds every 20 minutes, as well as taking five minutes time out at least once an hour. This can be particularly important for contact lens wearers. We tend to blink less often when concentrating, which can exacerbate dry eyes and irritation from lenses.
There’s no doubt that computers contribute to sedentary lifestyles that promote obesity and other health problems. There’s not much employers worried about employee wellbeing can do about it, except to promote awareness. Making sure people have the time to go out at lunchtime may help.
Computers themselves don’t cause psychological stress or compromise employee wellbeing (except when they don’t work), but employers’ demands for computer competence can. Employee wellbeing depends on feeling comfortable in the job and properly equipped for the task. Introducing new software without providing adequate training or learning time may not faze technophiles, but some employees may struggle to get to grips with new programs.
Employers often engage people to do computer work precisely because they’re not great at it themselves. They may have unrealistic expectations of what computers can do and how long it takes to do it. Unrealistic expectations of computer magic can leave employees stressed and feeling under-appreciated. Don’t expect your typist to do high-level desktop publishing, create fabulous graphics or undertake complex spreadsheet analyses unless you want to make them feel put upon and underpaid.
The bottom line
Employee wellbeing is business productivity. Promoting healthy computer usage is something no employer can afford to ignore if the goal is a contented workforce.