We are beginning to see the negative effects that long-term sedentary work can have on the human body.
IT WOULD SEEM that the average office worker has a physically low-impact job while construction sites are where the real body-breaking work takes place. However, today’s desk jockeys spend on average 6 hours per day sitting at a desk, often hunched behind a computer. As a result they suffer from numerous occupational diseases that can cause serious and sometimes permanent damage.
An occupational disease is a preventable condition that can be attributed to the workplace by a fraction of more than 50 per cent. Office workers suffer from conditions such as neck and back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, vision impairment, weight gain, and emotional stress.
Finland’s Occupational Health System
Companies in Finland are required by law to provide occupational healthcare service to their employees. This is done either internally, through private doctors, or through the public system that has occupational health centres available in each municipality. The state reimburses companies by one half for their spending in this area.
Helsinki’s Occupational Health Centre provides care to about 40,000 city workers ranging from health and social workers, to educational and economic sector workers, to manual labourers.
Jouni Silvo, an M.D. of Occupational Health at the health centre, reports about 60,000 visits to doctors per year in Helsinki alone. But he estimates that a majority of those come from about 20 per cent of the workforce.
Out of these patients, about 1/3 suffers from musculoskeletal conditions, 1/3 from infections and illnesses, and 1/3 from emotional stress, depression, or burnout. Musculoskeletal and emotional conditions are the most common amongst office workers.
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“The treatment for musculoskeletal issues often involves medication or physical therapy,” states Silvo, “But the most important thing is to assess the ergonomics at work.”
To do this, occupational health physiotherapists go to the patient’s office and check for needed ergonomic improvements. At the same time, they assess the company working life to see if employees are given enough break time and opportunities to allow their bodies free movement.
Current trends in office ergonomic improvement include standing desks which are better for circulation, arm support to reduce static load in the neck and shoulders, special chairs that allow up to 30 different sitting positions, and non-keyboard input devices such as a Wacom Tablet that use an electronic pen and tablet instead of a mouse.
John Starr, a senior art director at an advertising agency, has been working behind a computer for 12 years. Over time he developed back pain, his vision worsened, and he began gaining weight. As a result, he began feeling fatigue and depression.
“All the sitting is a viscous cycle,” Starr states. “You get more and more lethargic and it just makes you keep sitting.”
About a year ago, his company provided him with a standing desk and within weeks he noticed a difference. “My back felt better, I started shedding some extra pounds, and I got my energy back,” he said.
The treatment for emotional stress can involve medication and therapy, but most often taking a leave of absence is most effective. Again, the priority of the occupational health specialist is to meet with the workers and managers to find ways of adjusting the working life to keep the worker mentally healthy.
Markku Koskinen, a user experience digital designer, has been working behind a desk seven hours a day for 20 years. He has experienced many physical problems, but actually points to emotional stress as the biggest issue.
Last year, due to excessive workload, he reached the point of burnout and was given four months leave from his job in order to recover. However, Koskinen blames his own inability to “downshift” on his work as the reason behind the breakdown.
“When you are able to handle the stress and you’re in the flow, you don’t worry about the clock,” he says. “So it’s not necessarily pressure from clients or deadlines that is the problem, but the lack of work−life balance.”
Silvo agrees, saying that working in an office can be worse for the mind and body than performing manual labour. “Construction workers or bus drivers stop at four o’clock and are done,” he says. “Office workers often work late and then bring their work home with them thinking about it rather than relaxing.”
The main goal of occupational healthcare systems is prevention. Specialists are constantly assessing workplaces and searching for ergonomic issues as well as company cultures, looking for ways to increase worker happiness.
“The main idea of the occupational healthcare law is to prevent problems before they occur,” Silvo states. “Our aim is to develop working life as a whole so workers don’t ever need our services.”
LEHTIKUVA / JARNO MELA