Millennials and Office Ergonomics

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With more and more millennials utilizing mobile technology or working from home, some of these practices can lead to poor ergonomic practices and related workers’ compensation claims. An ergonomics program for millennials can be quite challenging but also very beneficial. In order to incorporate ergonomics properly for millennials, it is advantageous to understand how millennials work differently and view ergonomics as compared to previous generations.

Millennials are often regarded as being a “different” workforce. However, each generation has had its own quirks. Boomers are seen as the long-haired, rebellious hippies of the ‘60s who wanted to challenge the status quo and sometimes still do. They’ve historically been the largest generation in the workforce, but that dominance no longer holds.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, millennials (age 18-34) surpassed the baby boom generation in 2015 by having 75.3 million move into the workforce. Moreover, their numbers are expected to peak at 81.1 million in 2036.

Millennials have grown up in a world where technology is pervasive and is moving more and more to mobile devices. The downside is mobile technology enables them to use their devices basically anywhere from the kitchen counter or dining table to in bed or on the couch while gaming or interacting on social media – yet rarely at a workstation. As a result, they’ve lived and developed poor, slouching posture ever since they were old enough to turn on the device.

The fundamental concern with new millennial workers is that what may seem normal to them is in reality a high-risk posture that’s simply not good for them. We typically tell employees to let comfort be their guide, but this guideline doesn’t apply with millennials. Unfortunately, they are now accustomed to poor posture, and a new posture at the workplace can feel awkward. That’s why education on ergonomics becomes so essential.

One of the big changes with millennials is the fadeout of old-school touch typing. Business typing, and even computer keyboarding, are not taught in schools as much anymore. That leads to a hunt-and-peck method, forcing users to type with their head down for extended periods of time, which can become painful.

Millennial Traits Affecting Ergonomic Decisions

Team Work: Among millennials’ greatest strengths are their ability to work together in groups or teams and to effectively utilize technology.

Feedback: More than any other, the millennial generation craves feedback. In contrast, boomers are used to annual performance evaluations. But millennials need it much more frequently. So, schedule monthly visits with new hires for the first few months and ask them about their workstation setup. You’ll connect with them and can gauge how they’re doing. Keep in mind that their parents were very attentive to their “specialness,” and they may expect that from their bosses. Take the time to listen.

Immediate Satisfaction: Technology in the palm of a millennial’s hand allows immediate answers to life’s questions. In terms of ergonomics, offer a selection of devices, keyboards, mice, monitor stands, etc., that they can try out immediately. Most ergonomic equipment offers a free trial period. Make sure your vendors respond quickly to purchase orders so you can deliver quickly on your equipment recommendations.

Know What’s New: Millennials are a very tech-savvy group that love having the latest and greatest devices. Stay on top of new ergonomic equipment coming out and the research behind it. A great resource is the annual National Ergonomics Conference that has hundreds of vendors and products on display.

The Strength of Millennials

Millennials do bring many strengths to the workforce. For example, having worked in classroom groups or teams, they assimilate well within departments and when working on team assignments. A high familiarity with technology enables them to understand and accept online types of training more readily. They also accept that technology changes frequently and applaud upgrades and new systems they can discover. In other words, where boomers had to adapt to technology, millennials were born into it and embrace it.

They are also a very creative group and can bring excitement to the workforce by asking, “Why do we do it that way?” So, it makes sense to listen to and consider their ideas for making work processes smoother. Another tremendous characteristic millennials exhibit is a strong civic mindedness in wanting to do the right thing, for the right reasons and build a better world. That drive is excellent news since, as employees, they believe in giving back to communities which can enhance the organization’s brand image.

Millennials – Challenge to Understanding Benefits of Ergonomics

Since millennials are so used to working on technology from anywhere, they may not understand the benefits to good ergonomic practices. What’s important is to address ergonomics, safety, and wellness up front in the on-boarding process for new hires. And the sooner the better before bad habits set in. Since millennials began early with terrible technology-based behaviors, they’ve gotten used to them. In fact, many are coming into the workforce with levels of pre-MSD (musculoskeletal) injury that most employees don’t experience until after 10 or 20 years on the job.

Proactive strategies to consider include:

Wellness. Ergonomics should become a fundamental aspect of your wellness program and vice versa. That’s because although a healthy employee still can become injured, their recovery time will be quicker.

On-boarding. Make ergonomics, safety, and wellness an integral element in new hire orientation. For example, the longer it takes to help them set up their workstation, the longer their bad habits will solidify and affect your organization.

Involve IT. This means training your IT team on proper workstation set up when delivering a computer, mouse, and keyboard for a new employee. Do not wait until a millennial complains of pain before addressing proper ergonomics.

Purchasing. Keep your purchasing department up to speed with well-proven ergonomic solutions. Don’t ever allow employees to simply buy what they think they need. Not all products displaying an “ergo” label are valid.

Online Training. It’s the preferred learning method for millennials. They often find classroom-style training to be boring and frustrating to them, which can easily turn them off. Their brains move faster than other generations of workers, constantly striving for new, readily-accessible information. They move quickly from screen to screen, often with loud music or other media in the background. As trainers on ergonomics, safety, and wellness, we need to jazz up the experience to appeal to this faster-paced generation. Online ergonomics training works well to help triage and prevent problems sooner rather than later.

Discuss After-Hours Activities. In the past, bringing work home was rare, as was becoming consumed with technology after work (e.g., Facebook, Messaging, Instagram, Solitaire, Candy Crush Saga). In the days of pre-mobile technology, people mowed the lawn, puttered around the house and talked to each other eye-to-eye after work. Today, millennials tend to get home and play games for hours on end.

For all of us, the boundaries between work and home are more blurred than ever because it’s easy to review work emails and projects at home on our handheld devices. This is an important phenomenon because it makes it harder to determine where the injury actually occurred. It’s crucial to talk to millennial workers about what they do at home and how they can create a safer and more comfortable environment to prevent injuries.

Author of this Article: Kathy Espinoza

Kathy Espinoza, MBA, MS, CPE, CIE, is a board-certified professional ergonomist. She is assistant vice president, ergonomics and safety, for Keenan and has worked with the firm for 14 years providing workstation assessments, solutions and employee training. She has more than 12 years of experience as the coordinator and instructor of chronic back pain and wellness programs for a major hospital. She has published 62 articles in the field of ergonomics, safety and workplace issues.


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