Transition to paperless offices not victimless

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Office workers from all professions are experiencing unprecedented levels of neck, back, shoulder and arm pain as an unintended consequence of the paperless office, according to new academic research.

The study by the University of Sydney, published in WORK: a Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, found that moves since the 1980s to improve OHS and workstation design may have been completely reversed by changing work practices, including longer duration of computer work and less task variability.

The survey of more than 900 office workers found a direct correlation between the amount of time spent at a computer and the likelihood of experiencing musculoskeletal pain over a 12 month period.

Some 85% of people who participated in the study, who spent more than eight hours a day working with a computer, experienced neck pain, while 74% reported shoulder pain and a further 70% reported lower back pain. “Since I started assessing offices for computer workstation safety in the early 1980s, I’ve noticed massive changes with the amount of computer work now performed by office workers, particularly professional and executive workers,” lead author of the research, Karin Griffiths said.

Despite better workstation designs, seating and health education has not resulted in an observable decrease in the number of office workers reporting pain over the last 20 to 30 years. “In fact, recent research shows that prolonged sitting and the lack of physical activity associated with computer work is the main problem, and may be contributing to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity along with musculoskeletal pain,” Griffiths added.

See also: Take a stand: are desks killing your staff?

As part of the research, Griffiths, who also works as an occupational health and rehabilitation physiotherapist, compared office workers in different occupations, the number of hours of computer-based work they reported, and whether they experienced pain or other health problems. While musculoskeletal symptoms affect all office workers, those who spent more time at their computers, including professionals and senior executives, were the hardest hit. 

No longer just the domain of non-professional employees such as secretaries, data entry and call centre workers, all office workers are now subjected to long hours of computer-based work, and as a result professionals are more likely than ever before to experience musculoskeletal pain.

Next page: What HR can do to address the problem

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