When Apple computers recently announced its record-breaking profits, due in part to selling almost 75 million iPhones in the last three months of 2014, my heart sank. Not because I don't have shares in Apple, but because of the increasing problems I see around static loading from smartphone and tablet use.
Static loading is what happens when effort is used to keep, for example, an arm still. Think holding your smartphone while scrolling through your Twitter feed. In this scenario, the arm muscles tense as they are held aloft, causing fatigue and eventually pain. Restricted blood flow adds to the problem as it impedes the body's natural healing process.
"Muscles subject to static work need 12 times longer to recover from fatigue," according to Vern Putz-Anderson, public health advisor for the US's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in his book Cumulative Trauma Disorders: A Manual for Musculoskeletal Diseases of the Upper Limbs. "...in the absence of sufficient recovery time, prolonged and excessive static work will weaken joints, ligaments and tendons."
Of course, smartphones and tablets aren't totally responsible for computer-related static loading, but they certainly are making the problems worse. Now that it's so easy to constantly be on-screen - switching from desktop to laptop to tablet to smartphone and back again and again - our muscles are never getting any downtime. And we've yet to see a full decade of widespread smartphone and tablet use. Where will we be in the coming years when tablets and phablets (phone/tablet hybrid) replace desktops and laptops altogether?
Perhaps we should go the way of the French and implement rules requiring employees to shut down after six in the evening? I suspect such rules will be found to be unsustainable for many reasons. Either way, they won't help with static loading (and other potential digital device related physical health problems) because even if you shut off from work, it's unlikely that you've shut off completely.
It's time we equip employees with strategies to help them protect themselves, both from the infringement on their work/life balance and the physical repercussions of all that tap, tap, tapping.
We need computer workstation risk assessments that take a holistic approach, including an examination of the employee's total daily digital device use. Next, we need to raise awareness about potential health problems - static loading and beyond - and the important part that dynamic movement and digital downtime play in health.
Then we need to empower employees with good ergonomic set up know-how and the ability to apply it (or at least best-case-scenario set up) in every environment in which they operate, eg, at work, at home, on the train, in their local café, etc.
Finally, we need to encourage employees and companies to come up with their own ideas for integrating dynamic movement and digital downtime into their day.
Get a little digital downtime with these ideas:
• Start device-free meetings
• Ration your clicks and taps: ask yourself, do I really need to be doing this?
• Ring rather than text; walk rather than ring
• Limit checking emails, texts, and social media to pre-determined times throughout day
• Limit internet surfing at lunch, by eating away from your desk without your smartphone
• No digital devices after the watershed
• No work email on weekends (with example set by senior managers)
• Help colleagues too: copy only those people who absolutely need to know on emails
This blog first appeared on SHP Online.