Do you have back problems? Arthritis or Fibromyalgia, other problems with joint pain and stiffness??
Then how you are sitting at your desk in the office could be making it worse, whether you work at home or in a company environment. Read on to find out why, and how!
This article comes as the result of a new relationship with Alec Lom, a journalist who wrote many an article that was published in Fleet Street newspapers back in the day. I was introduced to Alec by fellow chronic pain advocate Barbara McLullich, author of Back Pain Blog.
You can find Alec at ‘Alec Lom Events & Communications‘, where they specialise in helping growing companies and organisations to raise awareness of their products, and also their key personnel. It was a great opportunity that he gave me to interview Nichola Adams, a ‘health ergonomist’, who he thought would be a great fit for our website, and readers. After a little background research into ‘Inspired Ergonomics‘, Nichola’s business, it was easy to see that Alec was right…
…and so I went off and compiled some questions for Nichola about the job that she does with her business, what it involves, and the impact of covid19 on her business and what lies ahead post-covid.
Back pain is a leading chronic complaint by patients which puts it high on list of causes for work absenteeism, sickness and disability
Nichola Adams, MSc Health Ergonomics, Tech CIEHF, ACPOHE Reg Member, is the Founder of Inspired Ergonomics.
- A specialist in back pain disorders in the workplace.
- One of only 11 technical members of the CIEHF.
- Extremely experienced in providing highly effective solutions for back pain.
- Provides consultancy services to leading UK and International companies on how to reduce and prevent back pain in the workplace.
- Works with rehabilitation companies.
- Passionate about recommending bespoke solutions for each individual’s pain experience.
It doesn’t matter if you are disabled, or not, work in an office or at home… or not! Not everyone with back pain, arthritis, or fibromyalgia for instance are unemployed and not working. This article could prove to be very educational for you regarding your work space set up. A great interview for an employee, an employer. or even someone who is chronically ill and blogging from home.
I hope you enjoy reading the interview and I express many thanks to Barbara, Alec and Nichola.
Read the interview:
FibroFlutters Question 1:
Can you explain what health ergonomics is?
Health Ergonomics is a multidisciplinary science. It combines biomechanics (how our bodies move), anthropometrics (our measurements) and psychology to enable us to design products and services that best match people’s physical, as well as mental, capabilities.
It embraces and recognises that we are all individuals and that there will be many external influences that affect our recovery. This includes the environment as well as social factors that affect, for instance, our attitudes towards our back pain, our stress levels and other influencing factors that can influence our levels of back pain.
I combine this with a biopsychosocial approach that recognises that our brains have a far bigger say in our body’s ability to heal that you might at first think. We humans are pretty complex, so we need a joined-up approach for true solutions. Ergonomic training provides you with different problem-solving skills that are applicable to a wide variety of applications, from product and systems designs to workstation set-ups.
I ended up specialising in providing ergonomic solutions for the workplace to reduce and prevent back pain. Ergonomic workstation consultations are really all about finding the missing piece of the puzzle to bring about a faster recovery. I often find, for instance, that people have been seeing a physiotherapist, but then just undoing all of their good work as soon as they return to their desk and go back to adopting awkward postures that merely create tension build-up again.
So I aim to look at what is causing their back pain, correcting and preventing awkward or repetitive positions and motions that can aggravate this, and then identify further strategies that could help in their recovery, such as nutrition, physiotherapy, exercise, stress management, etc. Ergonomists are trained to be experts in people and the way they work.
FF Question 2:
What initially inspired you to study it?
My first degree was actually in History of Art and I worked in art galleries for many years. However, I knew that I wanted to be in a career where I could help people. I always had an interest in sociology and psychology. So, I had a careers analysis, which identified that a career in architecture or ergonomics would suit me better. I had never heard of ergonomics but the more I looked into it the more it embraced everything that I was interested in: design, people, psychology and solution finding.
I ended up going back to university and completing a Masters in Health Ergonomics and I haven’t looked back since. I feel immensely privileged to be in a position where I can offer specialist help and advice to those who are struggling with back pain.
FF Question 3:
When did you first realise that ergonomics was a profession you wished to pursue?
When the career-analysis results came through and Ergonomics was suggested, it seemed spot-on. So, I went to visit the University of Surrey, where I was hoping to be admitted onto the Masters course. By that time, I had become passionate about the subject area, but I didn’t have the qualifications to attend (most come from a physiotherapy background). Thankfully, there was a kindly professor who could see my passion and, taking the career analysis as proof of my suitability, admitted me onto the course.
I have to say, it was extremely challenging as I had a lot of background scientific studying to do, but when you are naturally interested in a subject, that work doesn’t seem onerous. My first project was to design an ergonomic office chair (Corrigo Design Chairs https://www.corrigo-design.com/), which drew on my design background and my new understanding of the human body. An essential part of the user experience was to provide expert fitting advice for the chairs, so my work evolved to providing expert one-to-one ergonomic consultations and now workshops. This gives me the opportunity to really get in deep to investigate the cause of people’s back issues and to provide solutions accordingly.
FF Question 4:
Your business, ‘Inspired Ergonomics’, provides assessments for the workplace.
- What does a typical assessment involve?
- What has been the most challenging transformation that you have helped to make?
a) A typical assessment involves the following:
Conducted in a private interview room and at the individual’s workstation, each assessment provides:
- In-depth assessment of back-pain history and rehabilitation steps taken to date
- A visual REBA (Rapid Entire Body Assessment)
- Workstation assessment and detailed task analysis
- Seated postural analysis
- Education on the importance of ergonomics
- Postural training and task management
- Anthropometric measurements
- Comprehensive report detailing the clinical situation and changes made
- Recommendation of any ergonomic equipment required, if necessary
- Leaflet on optimal ergonomic workstation posture for future reference
- Duration: around 1 hour on-site and 1-hour report preparation
b) I do find that people with fibromyalgia or scoliosis have amongst the most complex needs.
I relish the challenge and am always delighted to be able to help provide new solutions that can make a key difference, as well as signposting on to other services that could be of help. It was these cases that inspired me to study the Biopsychosocial approach to chronic-pain management as I began to notice that some people seemed to cope better than others, and I wanted to find the reason why.
FF Question 5:
Can you describe the most common mistake regarding health ergonomics that you find in company offices, and explain why it is bad for people?
I often go into offices that have been fitted out by those with limited ergonomics knowledge and it breaks my heart to see everyone struggling with unsuitable chairs and desks. Mesh chairs have become really popular, and whilst they may fit a standard-sized user, the majority of people will struggle. Once a back is sensitised, the design flaws of a tilted back seat and no adjustable lumbar support, as well as seats that are far too big for the smaller person, are a problem. Thankfully, there are now other, far more supportive chairs available on the market. The key is in adjustability, to cradle your body no matter what your shape or size. I know finding an ergonomic chair is a bit of a minefield, so my top tips for reducing postural-related tension build-up is to have a chair that adjusts in:
– Seat depth & height: This ensures that the legs are supported correctly. It is essential to sit at the right height, with your arms level with the top of the desk; too low and you risk shoulder and wrist issues. If your feet are then too high, in this position, you can always use a footstool.
– Armrest width and height: It is also important that these are set fairly far back in the chair so you can bring the chair close to the desk and not have to reach forward and still have your arms supported by your side. Supporting your arms in line with the desk reduces shoulder and neck tension build-up. Extending your arms forward will create a pain response over time.
– Lumbar height and depth: There is a huge variety of lumbar-curve height and depth amongst the population and yet it is key to have your back supported in the right place. I prefer inflatable supports.
– Backrest and seat angles: For those with a sensitive back, being able to adjust these to your own ideal sitting posture is essential.
The other main issue is laptops being used without being docked. It is of primary importance to always raise the laptop and then use a separate keyboard and mouse. If you just raise it, then you would have to extend your arms up to reach the keyboard. If you don’t raise it, you will tend to slouch down to read the screen. So, it is essential to do both. Ideally, dock it onto a separate monitor. Incorrect laptop usage must be one of the biggest causes of back issues, as well as headaches, that I see.
However, as every ergonomist knows, every single person is different and has their own unique set of requirements. Solutions therefore need to be tailor-made around each individual, and it is only by having an in-depth understanding of our biomechanics, anthropometrics and psychological requirements that we can provide long-term solutions that will work and will continue to be adopted long after we leave. It is our job to really listen to the underlying cause of a back issue and to adapt our changes around these.
The biggest thing you can do to reduce back pain, however, is to keep moving. Always take breaks from sitting and keep some form of exercise weaved into your day.
Slideshow below show some pictures of Nichola conducting assessments.
FF Question 6:
Do you find that employees notice a significant change to their health after the office work stations have been altered? What are the main things that they report?
Absolutely. Sometimes a change in posture can take up to two weeks to feel the difference, but so often people report an instant change in their comfort levels. I often hear comments from my clients such as: “Why didn’t I think of that?” and “Why did I put up with this for five years!?”
People often are unsure of how to make changes themselves, or are unaware that a simple change in screen height or mouse position can make such a big difference. The most common issues I see are lower back, shoulder and neck pain. Quick changes to the chair set-up, screen, keyboard and mouse positions can make a dramatic difference to someone’s long-term comfort and back health.
FF Question 7:
Like many companies this year you have needed to alter the way that you conduct business due to Covid-19. This must have been daunting.
It really was. I was used to providing all our services face-to-face, and visiting people personally to provide one-to-one assessments as well as group workshops. This formed a huge part of my work, and upon lockdown, I instantly lost months of work. So much of my day was spent travelling to see clients and enjoying the chance to meet and help so many people personally. I wondered how we were going to be able to continue to help our regular clients and when business would ever return to normal.
However, I soon realised that I could pivot the business to providing these services online instead, and over time, it has actually shown that these could be a better way of working, for both the client and myself.
It really was daunting said Nichola.
I was used to providing all our services face-to-face, and visiting people personally to provide one-to-one assessments as well as group workshops. This formed a huge part of my work, and upon lockdown, I instantly lost months of work. So much of my day was spent travelling to see clients and enjoying the chance to meet and help so many people personally. I wondered how we were going to be able to continue to help our regular clients and when business would ever return to normal.
However, I soon realised that I could pivot the business to providing these services online instead, and over time, it has actually shown that these could be a better way of working, for both the client and myself.
“I was relieved when the #remoteassessments proved successful and I have also been inundated with requests for our Healthy Home Office Workshops”. @Backcarers on #covid19 #remotehealth #lockdown #workingfromhome #backhealth #backpainTweet
FF Question 8:
How did it make you feel when you realised that the way people worked was about to change dramatically, what was your biggest fear?
Like everyone, I felt a huge sense of sadness and stress at the uncertainty that we were all faced with, not knowing how long we were going to be in lockdown for (although I did suspect it would be at least until June), and what a new normal was going to be like. I thought I would really miss the human interaction and I was very concerned that we would be able to continue to provide our services. I was relieved when the remote assessments proved successful and I have also been inundated with requests for our Healthy Home Office Workshops., “And if your readers would like either of these, please click this link:
Or feel free to email me personally on firstname.lastname@example.org.
In fact, the advantages of delivering these via Zoom has meant that, when a company provides these for their homeworking employees, the individual’s partner, who may be within ear-shot, also benefits. Indeed, I have often then also been asked, as a follow-on, to provide the same workshop for their partner’s own company.
I am still extremely concerned that homeworkers are getting the right support at home. With so many people really struggling in private, I worry that companies are often unaware of the pain and stress that people are in. I’m concerned that companies may be failing to address this essential advice for the new team of homeworkers – particularly as we are very likely to be in a period of some sort of blended office/home working for quite some time. I have also been finding that, for those who are working, they are often working extremely long hours and are finding it hard to keep a balanced home/work life.
FF Question 9:
For instance, knowing that working from home-based offices would mean people would have badly aligned seating and desks, did you foresee a significant increase in the rise of employee sickness due to back pain and physical based injuries?
I can’t say I had a crystal ball, but interestingly, just within the first two weeks into lockdown, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) survey of over 5,000 people found that there was a 50% increase in back pain. This was hardly surprising considering the ‘perfect storm’ of stress, lack of exercise (particularly as we were then only being allowed outdoors once a day), and unsuitable home-working set-ups that would be contributing towards back pain. I then started to get contacted by employers who were realising that their employees needed help.
I have been continuing to see a significant increase in chronic and acute musculoskeletal issues that have led to time off work. The situation hasn’t been helped with the lack of available physiotherapy services.
FF Question 10:
How hard was it to make the transition to making home-working assessments, remotely, instead?
Examples: Was it difficult to find new clients? Was is difficult to choose which platform to use for your remote consultations? Had you considered telehealth options prior to Covid-19
I wondered at first, how it was all going to work out. However, I quickly worked to transition our services to being online, offering our one-to-one assessments via Zoom as well as workshops. It actually proved more effective than traditional visits, as the sessions were more private (rather than having to conduct these in open-plan offices), so people felt more able to discuss their concerns. Combined with photographs being provided beforehand, I could still gather a detailed picture of the issues and, because the person was having to be involved in the changes, hopefully create more education and therefore longer-lasting change. Zoom was the easiest platform to access at the time.
It also proved a highly effective platform for workshops, with employees across the country and the world being able to join in. I have just delivered one workshop for 211 participants joining across the world.
I always thought face-to-face assessments were far more effective than delivering these online, but actually, with practice, the reverse is proving true. Online assessments have the additional benefits of:
- Allowing me to see far more people in a day, at a more affordable cost for the companies, too, as I no longer need to add in time travel costs
- Allowing me to see people across the country and the world
- Providing greater privacy for the consultation
- Encouraging a far more proactive, educational approach for the assessment, for long-term adoption of change
I have been continuing to see a significant increase in chronic and acute #musculoskeletal issues that have led to #timeoffwork – Nichola Adams @Backcarers #backhealth #backpain #fibromyalgia #chronicillness #ergonomics @scrufton73Tweet
FF Question 11:
Now, workers are moving back to the company offices as we ease out of lockdown, do you foresee big changes as to how offices will operate?
I do indeed. The vast majority of companies I liaise with are talking about a September or even a December return to the office, with priority going to those employees who do not need to take public transport to work, or those who desperately want to return (due to unsuitable home-working set-ups). Many, for instance, are having to work from sofas or beds, as their homes are just too small for a desk and office chair, or their partner or flat-mate is using the dining-room table. This was particularly the case when the individual was also involved in home schooling.
On the return to the office, there will have to be a much-reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, so some sort of blended working may remain (mixing home with office working). Also, maybe a sort of rotation by teams in the office, in order to reduce exposure between teams. Some employers are predicting that the office may become a place for collaboration only, with local satellite offices or home-working continuing as part of the ‘new norm’.
FF Question 12:
What effect will this have on people’s health, for instance their lower back pain, or risk of injury?
I am really concerned that many companies are still not providing workstation assessments for their home workers. One company with whom I have just started working only instigated assessments after their employees created a campaign to get this put into place. I have been seeing so many people starting to struggle with acute pain issues, or an exacerbation of their existing back issues, with opioids being prescribed by doctors, especially when physiotherapy clinics were also closed. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has just updated their guidance to requiring companies to provide homeworkers with assessments where this is now going to be long-term, but I don’t think many companies realise this. I am seeing increasing numbers of cases of RSI, headaches, lower-back pain etc, and opioid use.
FF Question 13:
Would you oversee these transitions in person, or remotely, and why
I think, in fact, that remote assessments work extremely well. I would foresee continuing with this for quite some time, as it also helps when people are still nervous of infection or for those shielding. I think also, due to the lower cost from the lack of travel required, that it provides a viable long-term option even when we return to the office.
FF Question 14:
How do you see ‘Inspired Ergonomics’ moving forwards post-Covid-19? For example, will you continue to perform remote assessments for those who work from home?
Yes, I certainly do, and I have outlined some of my reasons for believing this in my answer above.
FF Question 15:
Okay, for a bit of fun. Can you tell us about one of the ‘silliest’ home environment office setups that you have come across?
Well, I have seen all sorts. I think some people are often embarrassed to admit to how they are really working, and this is when being independent of the company adds an extra layer of reassurance for the client. Whatever set-up is used, I can usually help them with improving it. I have helped people who have been using their ironing board as a desk, someone sitting at a coffee table, or on the floor, using three screens. Then there was someone sitting on a sofa while using bar stools for their screens and the sofa arm for their mouse. Quite a juggling act! I often see these kinds of set-ups as highly innovative rather than rash, but there is always room for improvement, too.
And, of course, the not-so-entertaining side to all these unconventional make-shift home-working arrangements is that, in most cases when I have been asked for advice and support, the individuals concerned were already suffering, or starting to suffer, from back, neck and shoulder pains and strains that, had they gone uncorrected by my intervention, might have risked them developing more serious, long-term injuries.
Many thanks for reading
Before conducting this interview I didn’t know anything about health ergonomics really, but now I understand the importance of it. My workspace is shocking and probably a good thing that Nichola hasn’t seen it…
…However, I now know the benefits of making it better so that I have better body alignment and I hope that ‘you’ as our readers have learned something to take away from this article.
Once again thank you to Nichola Adams from Inspired Ergonomics for giving me some of her time to answer my questions. Also, to Barbara for connecting me with Alec who helped to make it all happen!
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