Over the past decade, the business world has been evolving with the emergence of a mobile workforce and the virtual workplace. Where workers were once tied to their desks, they now work anywhere, anytime, with a computer in the palm of their hands.
The strong relationship between ergonomics and the modern workplace have contributed to an improved office environment. Features of this environment include adjustable seating, keyboard trays, computers, mice and other devices designed to reduce musculoskeletal injuries.
The anywhere workforce does not have the same advantages. Handheld computer devices such as laptops, tablets, and smart phones are shaping how workers connect in both their work and personal lives. These devices, which can be used anywhere, can put the human body at risk for musculoskeletal injury because of their design and how people use them.
One such musculoskeletal phenomenon occurring in the mobile workforce is called “text neck,” a term that is becoming more popular in the common literature. So what is text neck? Text neck can be defined as a muscular overuse syndrome involving the head, neck and shoulders, generally due to excessive strain on the spine from looking in a forward and downward position.
The human head weighs approximately 12 pounds, and as the neck bends forward, the weight of the head on the cervical spine increases. When the neck is bent at a 15-degree angle, the weight of the head on the neck increases to approximately 27 pounds; at 45 degrees, it is 50 pounds.
For the body to compensate, the muscles around the neck, shoulder, and upper back must all activate to support the head. Over time, this can fatigue the body, cause pain in the neck, shoulder, and upper back areas, and can even create issues with the vertebrae discs resulting in numbness and tingling in the fingers.
Mobile computer devices are designed to be used for short periods of time, with longer dedicated computer usage to be done at a proper desk. But as texting and surfing lifestyles change, and along with them, the amount of hours people spend staring down at their devices, people are putting their bodies at risk for musculoskeletal injury.
Adopt better mobile habits
Handheld devices are part of the work world, but how and when workers use their devices are the keys to maintaining a healthy body. The three main ways to prevent musculoskeletal injury are: use the correct device, maintain a neutral neck posture, and take breaks to allow the body to recover.
1. Use the correct device.
Every type of computer device is made for a certain function. Time-consuming tasks such as typing a long email or Word document are best done at a desk in a proper chair on a computer that will support the body. The chair and keyboard tray support should allow the worker to get their work done without worrying about musculoskeletal issues.
However, the mobile phone or tablet is perfect for quick activities, such as sending a short text, checking directions, or doing a status update. As with any type of tool, the longer a person uses it, the more comfortable it must be to support his or her body.
As an example, a bike with a seat too low might feel alright to ride around the block, but for a 50-kilometre ride, it would become very uncomfortable and could cause pain and even injury. It is the same with a computer, so it’s important to look at the types of tasks one is performing and decide whether they should be completed at a computer workstation or on a mobile device.
2. Maintain a neutral posture.
How workers use their devices is just as important as how long they use them. When seated at a computer workstation, workers have the ability to adjust their seat height, armrests, and keyboard tray to fit their body. But with a mobile device, workers no longer have these tools.
Therefore, workers need to think about how they can maintain a neutral neck posture without excessive bending. This can be as simple as holding up their device a bit higher closer to eye level, and even supporting their arms on a chair, table, or other surface so that they feel comfortable when using the device.
3. Take breaks so the body can recover.
Both the body and the device need a break every now and again. It is important to think about one’s amount of screen time, both at work and at home. There have been numerous studies about the affects of downtime and ability for bodies to recharge at the end of the day. If people can never disconnect, they never have the ability to reflect and seek out new ideas and opportunities.
For many individuals suffering from musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace, it’s always important to understand their habits both at work and at home, as they can both have affect performance. Therefore, if workers are feeling soreness or pain, it is important to take breaks to allow their body to recover.
Any organization with an on-the-go workforce should consider a mobile device policy in the ergonomics policy. This will help protect employees from musculoskeletal injury from mobile device use, whether in the office or at home.
The ongoing drive for efficiency, communication, and knowledge needs to be balanced with a safe approach to mobile technology. This will allow people to have a better understanding of their body postures and to hear their necks and shoulders when they are saying they are in pain and to take breaks when necessary. Always think about the task to be done, and the proper means — be it a computer workstation, tablet or smart phone, or even face to face — of getting it done.
Aaron Miller is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and an ergonomic consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.