Ergonomics in the workplace might feel like a health and safety buzzword that immediately conjures a mental image of cushioned, lumbar-supported chairs and split keyboards with raised wrist pads. 

But ergonomic design is about much more than this. Improving workplace ergonomics demands a comprehensive and granular assessment of your employees’ individual needs and how work happens across your business. 

Let’s unpack that. 

What is ergonomics in the workplace?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define ergonomics this way:

‘Ergonomics is a science concerned with the "fit" between people and their work. It puts people first, taking account of their capabilities and limitations. Ergonomics aims to make sure that tasks, equipment, information and the environment fit each worker.’

The practice of ergonomics means assessing the interplay of three factors, in order to ‘design safe, effective and productive work systems’:

  • The job or task. For example, what demands does this task put on the worker? What equipment must they use? What’s the physical environment like?
  • The individual. For example, what are this person’s physical and physiological characteristics? What are their skills and abilities? What challenges do they face?
  • The organisation or social environment. For example, what is leadership like in this organisation? What support and resources are available? What is the culture like?

Ergonomics has three major areas of focus.

What are the three major areas of ergonomics?

Workplace health and wellness specialists, E3 Consulting, outline three major areas of ergonomics:

Physical Ergonomics

Physical ergonomics looks at how workplace conditions can impact employees’ physical health, through ‘overexertion, repetitive movements, and poor posture’ among other things. Physical ergonomics involves designing systems that ensure employees work optimally within their physical capability.

Cognitive Ergonomics

Cognitive ergonomics looks at how the task and workforce environment impact employees’ cognitive abilities and mental health, to ensure employees can perform as required.

A recent study in the BMC Psychology journal expands:

‘Cognitively straining conditions such as disruptions, interruptions, and information overload are related to impaired task performance and diminished well-being at work. It is therefore essential that we reduce their harmful consequences to individual employees and organisations.’ 

Organisational Ergonomics

Organisational ergonomics looks at how the structure of the workplace as a whole has an impact on employees. Organisational ergonomics ‘refers to the optimisation of social technical systems, including organisational structures, policies and processes.’

Why workplace ergonomics is important

Ensuring your workplace is designed according to ergonomic principles is beneficial for your employees – and ultimately your bottom line too.

Decrease lost time to injury and sick leave costs

In the UK in 2019/20, 38.8 million working days were lost due to workplace ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries. Stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority of days lost.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) point out that costing sickness absence accurately has traditionally been complex, because it involves more than direct salary costs and there are many types of absence. This has meant ‘most UK employers are seriously underestimating the costs of sickness absence’.

In their comprehensive report attempting to redress this, IES conclude that large UK employers spend up to 16% of annual salary costs on absence. Improving ergonomics in the workplace could have a major impact in reducing these days' lost and the associated costs.

Reduce the potential for accidents

As well as impacting workplace injuries, accidents at work can also impact operations, delay delivery for customers and damage your reputation as a business. Depending on the nature of the accident, employers may even face penalties. This can stretch into the multi-millions – like the award of £6.5 million in damages to a worker who lost his fingers in a cutting accident.

Poor ergonomics can have a much broader impact than on a single individual. Director of Strategic Safety Systems, Phil Chambers, shares examples of where poor ergonomic design has factored into major accidents. For instance, Chambers talks about the DC8 Toronto plane crash, where a lever with ‘major ergonomic problems’ combined with different workers trained on ‘different practices’ to cause a major crash, killing 109 people.

Paying attention to ergonomic design in the workplace can mitigate against these risks, contributing to a safer workplace for your people – and your customers too. 

Increase productivity and engagement 

As we’ve explored, ergonomics in the workplace means designing the optimum conditions for your people to complete work safely and effectively. In other words, when you create those conditions, you remove distracting, complicating, damaging (or dangerous) factors that disrupt employees’ work and hurt engagement.

It’s intuitive that employees who are distracted, uncomfortable, tense, anxious, stressed or in pain aren’t best positioned to be productive. Meeting basic human needs like comfort is integral to employee motivation.

This also means ergonomics should be a major focus area if your workforce works remotely. You might have invested heavily in an ergonomic workplace but if your employees are now working hunched up at their kitchen table in dim lighting, you might see a productivity consequence.

Creating an ergonomic workplace helps create the conditions where your employees can thrive – and can dismantle some of the biggest roadblocks to productivity that workers face today. For example, an Atlassian study into distractions at work found:

  • The average employee checks their email 36 times per hour – which has a cognitive impact equivalent to skipping an entire night’s sleep.
  • The average employee spends 31 hours in unproductive meetings each month, costing billions in salary costs each year.
  • The average employee encounters 56 distractions per day and loses two hours each day to refocus after those distractions.

Overall, the study concludes that 60% or less of work time is actually spent productively. Ergonomic workplace design can help you take control over these factors, building a workplace that works better for your people and your bottom line. 

How to improve ergonomics in the workplace 

Improving ergonomics at work isn’t just about investing in some ergonomic office equipment. Fellow of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors and principal ergonomics consultant at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, Richard Graveling, says: ‘sometimes the [ergonomic] label is justified but, on other occasions, it seems little more than a useful marketing tool.’

Graveling recommends following the UK’s DSE Regulations and Schedule of Minimum Requirements as a starting point, with one big proviso:

‘The Schedule is best thought of as a list of ingredients, the important part being how well you mix/use those ingredients. Although well-designed furniture and equipment is important, how they are used to create an individual’s workstation is critical.’

Part of improving ergonomics in the workplace is recognising that ‘people come in all shapes and sizes and one-size-fits-all doesn’t work’. There’s no single right answer to ergonomics. As we’ve talked about above, ergonomics is about the interplay of task, individual, and social environment and in each case, those factors can differ.

The UK’s DSE Regulations outline the need to conduct a thorough workplace risk assessment and provide adequate training for employees to ensure they understand safe working practices. This training element is an important part of ergonomics. As Graveling puts it: ‘Giving people suitable and well-designed furniture and equipment is only part of the story. It needs to be correctly set up and used.’

Ergonomics in the workplace is about more than investing in the right chairs and desks. It’s about engaging with your workforce as individuals and assessing whether your workplace at every level truly facilitates their safety and success.