Don’t be like Emma

Like many people I know, I spend most of my work hours sitting in an office chair that I leave only for bathroom breaks or when I remind myself to move. After decades of peering into a computer screen day after day, my sitting posture is horrible, my neck often hurts, and my back sometimes feels as stiff as a board of plywood.

My posture while walking is fine, and I make a conscious effort to avoid looking down at my phone and developing the zombie-like neck tilt that’s so common with smartphone users nowadays. It’s when I’m sitting that my habits take a turn for the worse. Every once in a while, like now, I straighten my shoulders and push back my neck, conscious of my slump. Within minutes, though, I fall right back into the slouch and unfortunately that slouch has unintentionally become my default position.

So when I saw a picture of Emma, the work colleague of the future, I winced. I recognized parts of me in her hunched back and her bloodshot eyes. I bet lots of office drones all over North America did, too, when the video of Emma made the rounds on the internet.

Emma is a life-sized dummy created by researchers and 3-D model specialists. She is, in many ways, the worst example of how an unhealthy workspace affects us physically, causing “a permanently bent back caused by sitting for hours in a bad position, varicose veins from poor blood flow, a rotund stomach caused by a sedentary position, dry and red eyes from long hours staring at a computer screen and other health conditions.” Oh, and to add insult to injury, she’s got a bad complexion.

In short, she’s the cautionary tale of how we will look in 20 years if we don’t improve our chairs, our desks, our office culture, and the overall way we work. Standing desks, maybe? Walking meetings? Mandatory stand-up-and-move breaks every 30 minutes?

As part of the Work Colleague of the Future report sponsored by an office furniture company, experts in ergonomics, occupational health, and professional well-being interviewed more than 3,000 employees about their health issues and concerns to come up with Emma. While the surveyed workers were from Europe, I think most, if not all, of their survey findings can be applied to Canadian office work life.

Those health issues are disturbingly familiar. Fifty per cent reported strained eyes, 49 per cent sore backs, 48 per cent headaches, 45 per cent stiff neck, 30 per cent sore wrists – I could go on with the list, but my news is growing bleaker by the keystroke. Besides, I think anyone who’s worked in an office understands all too well the hardships of a desk job, particularly since our sedentary work day is often followed by a sedentary lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, researchers urge a change in the tools and the culture of our modern workplace, including more frequent breaks and more ergonomic office furniture. “Unless we make radical changes to our working lives, such as moving more, addressing our posture at our desks, taking regular walking breaks, or considering improving our workstation setup,” one of the researchers told the press, “our offices are going to make us very sick. As a result, workers in the future could suffer health problems as bad as those we thought we’d left behind in the Industrial Revolution.”

I really don’t need a report to know the consequences of sitting too much and not moving enough. I’m already pretty good about exercising every day, and am trying extra hard to remember to keep blinking while I’m looking at my computer (per my eye doctor’s suggestion). I am fortunate to have a job that tracks and invests in the ergonomic health of employees and provides me with the equipment I need to be comfortable. But what if my adaptations are nothing more than minor concessions, like coal miners tying a handkerchief over their noses to ward off lung disease?

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist – a practice that seems for me to increase in frequency with age – I am making a point to tell all my fellow desk jockeys to take all the measures they can to prevent a future full of hunchback, bleary-eyed Emmas.