Ergonomics in Wellness Programs

Company wellness programs are a great way for companies to help their employees get and stay healthy.  Some common themes in wellness programs include helping employees lose weight, eat healthier, stop smoking, and engage in regular exercise.  These goals affect the “internal environment” of the employee and can aid in reducing illness and disease, as well as help the employee feel good and be more productive.  But what about the “external environment” of the employee?  Has this been adequately addressed in company wellness programs?

The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) is investigating that question and feels that a more total health effort will result in greater success of wellness programs.  Dr. Laura Punnett, PhD, University of Massachusetts Lowell is part of the team that is investigating merging occupational health measures with wellness programs.  Dr. Punnett writes a very convincing scientific rationale for including ergonomics in wellness programs:

More research needs to be done, but there is evidence that changing work organization (e.g. work schedules, how a task is done) through ergonomics principles can increase an employee’s feeling of contributing to the work process (known as decision latitude).  Improving decision latitude has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, mental health problems, and possibly play a role in reducing musculoskeletal injuries.  Most importantly in this article, Dr. Punnett states that wellness programs primarily address individual issues, but often do not uncover the root cause of the problem.

With this, I wholeheartedly agree.  To achieve total employee wellness, both internal and external environments need to be addressed.  Also based on preliminary evidence, internal and external environments may be linked more closely than once thought and may prove to be complementary.  For example, an employee may be having trouble quitting smoking.  He cites stress at work which has arisen since new changes have been made in his job as an assembly line worker.  These changes include decreasing the time it should take him to complete his task and use of a new tool that is causing hand pain.  If these issues are not addressed, stress will continue and smoking will too.  Using the ergonomics principles of changing task rate and improving the ergonomics of tools will help to mitigate stress and affect smoking cessation positively.

So if you are participating in a wellness program, make sure that all your needs are met.  That your goals to eat healthier are complemented by an ergonomics evaluation, and that your increase in exercise is combined with changing the way you work through posture improvements and more effective rest breaks.  With a total health approach, we can achieve a happier lifestyle with less stress and a greater experience in our working lives.