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Chronic pain during work is a big concern

One of today’s biggest threats to productivity is employee absence, owing to injuries caused by long work hours that result in repetitive strain

In offices, the most crucial aspect that can help prevent aches and pains is the correct posture of employees(iStockphoto)

By Geetika Sachdev

LAST PUBLISHED 27.11.2023  |  06:30 AM IST

Pushpendra Sahni, a software engineer from Mumbai, has been struggling with a frozen shoulder and chronic backache for the past two years. When work from home was a norm during the covid-19 pandemic, he didn’t pay much attention to his posture and hunched over his laptop for long hours.

He continues to bear the brunt of his actions.

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“When the pandemic hit, there was intense pressure to keep our jobs. I would sit on my bed all day long without taking a break; there were times when I’d even miss my meals," recalls Sahni, 36. “It’s been a while but my back pain continues to trouble me. In fact, it has worsened over time."

Sahni consulted an orthopaedic surgeon a few months after he first experienced the pain but the damage had already been done. While he was told to do range-of-motion and stretching exercises, he could hardly follow through because of his increasing workload.

Unfortunately, he is due for surgery now.

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“Upon our return to the physical workspace in the latter half of 2021, I discussed my medical issues with the senior management but no action was taken," he says. “We are expected to work eight to nine hours at a stretch without many breaks. My colleagues have been facing similar issues, complaining of frequent aches and pains."

Sahni isn’t alone. If you listen closely to conversations inside and outside India Inc., you will realise that many are suffering from work-related injuries, pains and aches. Someone’s frozen shoulder forces them to take frequent breaks, someone can’t sit for long hours so they are completing PPTs while lying in bed, watery eyes, wrist pain, lower back pain. One of today’s biggest threats to productivity is employee absence, owing to injuries that are not the result of falls or lifting heavy equipment, but caused by long work hours, resulting in repetitive strain on a daily basis.

In 2022, Godrej Interio’s Workplace and Ergonomics Research Cell conducted an investigative study to delve into the role of a structured approach to ergonomics training in reducing the incidence of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WSMDs) among office goers. An alarming 82% out of the 500 office goers who were surveyed across India in the age group between 21 and 40 years reported body pain while working from home, while 76% of the respondents complained about WSMDs while working from office. Why? Inappropriate posture, lack of postural breaks, absence of ergonomic furniture, and prolonged working hours.

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“In recent years, we have witnessed a rise in the incidence of neck and back aches, particularly among the young generation who are in their 20s and 30s," says Masuma Cherawala, a Mumbai-based consultant physiotherapist who specialises in musculoskeletal disorders. “Generally, home environments do not have proper work desks. People sit on their beds and slouch while working, which causes severe damage to the spine, neck and back."

Similarly, in offices, the most crucial aspect that can help prevent aches and pains is the correct posture of employees. “One can sit on a regular plastic chair and still be free of any neck or back pain. How you sit is what really matters," she adds.

A study, Effect of Covid-19 Lockdown/Compulsory Work From Home Situation On Musculoskeletal Disorders In India, published in the Journal Of Bodywork And Movement Therapies in September 2022, analysed 281 responses from Indian working professionals between 18 and 60 years. Among the many musculoskeletal disorders that persist, neck pain emerged as the most common of all aches, the study concluded. Before the lockdown, 25% of the respondents were suffering from neck pain, but the percentage has gone up to 29% post-covid.

Shoulder pain is another concern, with 20% of the participants facing it now as compared to 18% before the lockdown. Upper back pain and lower back pain are the two other recurring issues.

“These aches are growing because of the wrong ergonomical postures of the employees. The employer can provide fancy chairs but the position in which an employee sits is the most important," informs Cherawala.

The way out

With enough awareness around the prevalence of chronic pain and its impact on employee productivity, some workplaces across India have some components of ergonomically sound office furniture.

US-based Kenvue, a consumer health company with its corporate office in Mumbai, for instance, works closely with ergonomists to prevent musculoskeletal disorders in and outside the office. They have around 1,100 employees who work either at their corporate office and two plants in Mulund and Baddi, or remotely.

“Our offices are designed to facilitate healthy exercises through on-site or virtual sessions, including gym, yoga, meditation, and stretching with qualified trainers," says Shipra Saraf, head of human resources at Kenvue, which also offers ergonomic workstation setup options for remote work. “Employees have ergonomic chairs, and ‘sit and stand’ workstations… that allow them to change their position and avoid prolonged sitting."

At Bajaj Electricals offices in 18 locations, workers are offered accessories like lumbar supports or backrests to ensure added lower back support, says Suman Kumar Ghosh, the company’s chief human resources officer. The company focuses on the smaller aspects of the workstation as well, besides hosting regular sessions of yoga and workshops on sitting correctly while working.

Since the chair yoga sessions are conducted at the respective workstations of employees, most employees end up participating in it. However, the attendance largely dips during critical periods like the quarter-end, before a product launch or campaign period.

“Employees also have an option to use the keyboard and mouse tray, monitor arms and adjustable laptop stand to set it to the correct viewing height. These can help reduce any challenges of the back and neck," Ghosh says.

These efforts are meaningless unless employees don’t take the initiative to take care of their health. Most aches and pains can be brought down by simply modifying how one works at their desk, says Cherawala. For starters, it is important to evaluate the height of the table and chair to ensure that when the arms are on the table, the shoulders are completely relaxed.

“Whichever chair you are using, make sure your buttock is scooted in and touches the back of the chair completely. Push yourself into the chair and relax. Then push your chair right into your desk, such that the edge of your desk almost touches your chest," she advises, adding that this posture will prevent any protrusion of your head forward to look at the screen.

At the end of the day, it’s all about working smartly and putting one’s health first.

“I don’t think pressure will reduce in jobs but my advice is to take frequent breaks, say every half an hour. Stand at your desk or walk around a little to relieve the stress from your neck and back," she concludes.

A healthy office

Ritu Goregaoker, director of Interior Design at GA Design, a Mumbai-based architectural and interior design firm, suggests some tips that workspaces can embrace to minimise the risk of WSMDs.

● Use supportive anti-fatigue mats to ease pressure on the feet and joints in staff areas with high footfall.

● Factor in the height and the depth of the worktable to enable comfort during work hours.

● Incorporate adequate, non-glare lighting to prevent eye strain and accidents.

● Take care of the acoustics at the workplace, for noise pollution can have a negative impact on the psyche of the employees.

Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist.

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