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Easy, Inexpensive Ways to Protect Computer Users From Musculoskeletal Pain

02/04/2015 15:53 BST | Updated 02/06/2015 10:59 BST

Pain associated with the use of computers and other digital devices is now a common occurrence. It's no surprise as all of us are on our devices from the moment we wake up in the morning until right before we shut our eyes again at night. (Or has the blue light stopped you sleeping altogether?)

So how can employers protect their employees at the office (as well as the ones working remotely) from musculoskeletal disorders such as repetitive strain injury? Here are some easy, inexpensive solutions:

Raise awareness

Raising awareness is the first step to getting employees to protect themselves. Start by talking with your team about the potential detrimental effects of sitting in static, awkward postures for long periods while performing repetitive movements. The British Heart Foundation's Health at Work programme has some great resources you can use.

Demonstrating neutral posture - and how to apply it while using a computer or other digital device - is important too. It's worth getting an Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais Method practitioner to come in to your workplace to do a live demo to the group. Once employees know what to look out for, they are more likely to make adjustments on their own.

Next, show employees how to set up their workstations safely. In two minutes, this excellent video shows you how to set up. Once employees know how best to set up, encourage them to take that info and apply it wherever they are - at work, at home, at the local café, etc. Because even if someone has the best workstation set up at the office and maintains a neutral posture all day at work, they will counteract its good benefits if they spend all evening slouching on the sofa, iPad on left knee, iPhone on right knee, scrolling and tapping.

Move more

The musculoskeletal system is the body's movement system. It's designed to move and it needs to do so to be healthy. Here's a great video explaining why in five minutes.

The best way to protect employees is by normalising movement at work by encouraging them to move at every opportunity, eg, standing meetings, walking meetings, group break times, lunchtime stretching or walking groups, on-site yoga, Pilates, etc. Encourage teams to stretch and move together; it's a good way to make sure everyone does it. This funny, three-minute video helps get the point across about moving at work.

Create posters showing easy stretches that can be placed wherever people find themselves standing for a moment, eg, at the kettle, by the photocopier, in the loo cubicles. This way, employees will get the idea to stretch and move every chance they get. Bob Anderson's Stretching contains easy-to-follow images of stretches for a variety of scenarios, including the office.

If you have the space, a designated stretching area away from the main areas is good to have for employees who are reluctant to stretch in front of others. This also gives people a place to lie flat on the floor to stretch their backs.

Movement during the workday doesn't have to be strenuous; it just needs to be done often. New research shows that even if someone does strenuous exercise for one hour every day, it won't be enough to beat the ill effects of sitting for the rest of that day.

There are free apps and software that will help remind employees to take breaks; some even provide guided stretches employees can do during their break.

Cut keystrokes

Encourage employees to think of ways to eliminate or minimise keystrokes, mouse clicks and screen taps whenever possible. For example, turning off email and text alerts will discourage employees from constantly clicking back and forth. Instead, suggest that employees designate specific times throughout their day when they will check for new messages. This is not only a beneficial strategy for the body, it's good for the mind too as effective multi-tasking is a myth, according to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his new book The Organized Mind.

Standardising email responses and having devices remember passwords when it's safe can also reduce keystrokes. Voice activation tools can be used too to minimise hand/arm movements too.

Minimise screen time

Reducing screen time in little ways can help too, for example, implementing no-device meetings and no-device lunch breaks. Encourage employees to carve out time in their week when they will go 'off device' totally, for example, during their commute, on Sundays, or evenings after the watershed (this will help them sleep better too.) Managers must set the example for off-device time otherwise employees will feel compelled to keep up, according to TEDx Speaker Maura Thomas writing in the Harvard Business Review.

Find what works for your workplace

Each workplace and each employee has to find what works for them within safe parameters. It's a good idea to experiment with different options and decide as a group what will work best for your workplace.

One excellent resource which explains why repetitive strain injuries occur and how best to prevent them is: It's Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome!, RSI Theory and Therapy for Computer Professionals. Keep a copy of this book at the office and encourage everyone to read it to help them be safe and pain-free.

This blog first appeared on Health & Safety Week. The aim of Health and Safety Week 2015, 15-19 June, is to inspire employers and employees to embrace health in the workplace by instigating initiatives and programmes throughout the year.