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Case Studies: Corporate Approach ...

Posted Dec 13 2008 11:30pm

Case Studies: Corporate Approaches to Ergonomics

Thursday, May 15, 2008 19:56

I’ve worked for start-ups, mid-sized and large organizations with vastly different corporate cultures, financial resources and approaches to ergonomic workstation setup. In my experience, larger organizations tend to have more resources in place and are more willing to purchase ergonomic equipment.

This might lead you to believe that ergonomically speaking, it’s better to work for a big company. But that isn’t always the case. In part, that’s because the corporate culture has a huge influence on the effect of a workstation on the staff. If you’re stressed at work, or have to put in long hours, you’re far more likely to sustain an injury, whether or not you use fancy equipment.

At a smaller company, the environment might be more humane – couches, snazzier décor, and more relaxed workplace in general make it easier to unwind and avoid pain. Again, the corporate culture can vary widely and doesn’t depend reliably on just the company size.

But just for the sake of perspective, let’s look at three companies and how they treat employees, to see if we can see patterns emerging.

Case 1: The Start-up

Start-ups I’ve worked for are short on the resources side. Simple economics determines that if you’re not yet a profitable company, you’re not going to become one by shelling out a lot for ergonomic equipment.

Staff might have to ask a few times for a keyboard tray. At one company, I quit before I ever received my keyboard tray. At another, I did the research and found the one I liked, then installed it myself when it arrived—with my own portable drill I brought in from home! I was one of maybe two people at a 25-person company who worked with a keyboard tray.

Also at a startup, there’s much less possibility to get an ergonomic assessment and other accommodations. But what you might get, that you’d lack at a large organization, is a more relaxed corporate culture. If you can dress casually, and sit in a more naturally-lit or colorful environment, you’ll be more comfortable and less stressed. Also, if you know everyone at the company, it’s easier to talk about what you need or take breaks when you need them.

Case 2: The Medium-Sized Corporate Bubble

When I developed RSI, I was working for a medium sized company. It was my first job out of college. The company’s HR Department was very kind and sent me to worker’s comp and gave me an ergonomic evaluation and purchased an expensive chair, keyboard tray and other equipment for me. They had those resources available, and didn’t hesitate to go all out for me.

What they failed to do, however, was to make the company a pleasant place to spend my time. I hated walking in to beige halls in the morning, to the smell of stale coffee and a dim office, and a culture where the VP of HR send out messages like, “If your sleeves aren’t four inches long, we’re sending you home.” I could even imagine her going around the building with a ruler, measuring people’s attire. It was ridiculous, and stuffy—and that culture wasn’t just confined to the HR rules. I worked about 45 hours a week, my boss was never pleased with anything, and any creative idea was shot down. VPs came to my desk an hour before I was ready to leave and begged me to stay to finish a job for them, on a regular basis. I quit after 10 months, my morale shot and my health in really bad shape.

The organization was well-intentioned, but the culture it created wasn’t conducive to healthy work – so I developed injuries, and left the company.

Case 3: The Safety-First Enterprise

A friend of mine works for a Fortune 500 company and recently described the experience as being babied. They take extreme care that their employees have the ergonomic furniture and workstations they need, and they’ve gone so far as to purchase sit-stand desks for some staff, and to load all the computers with rest-break software that requires staff to take breaks and stretch at regular intervals.

Surely all Fortune 500 companies are not so careful. In fact, I could imagine that some employees might even be annoyed at the requirements imposed by software that freezes your computer if you don’t stop and stretch. But, it also makes it easier for employees to ingrain healthy work habits, more difficult for them to push on through or worry about what their coworkers might think if they take breaks.

On the other hand, my friend also works long days of 9-10 hours, then gets a day off once every other week. Such long hours are bound to cause overuse problems if they aren’t carefully regulated.

What are your experiences, dear readers? Do you think the size of an organization has a large effect on whether it’s a healthy place to work? Experiences that reinforce or contradict some of my observations above?

Tell us your stories in the comments section.

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