Moving Beyond Stretch & Flex

Ergonomics February 2, 2018

Moving Beyond Stretch & Flex

This past September, we visited an interesting article from the May 2017 edition of ASSE’s Professional Safety magazine. There, researchers Choi & Sathy et. al. shared the results of their recent study of construction firms who were between 1 and 3 years post-implementation of Workforce Stretch & Flex (S&F) Programs. The reported consequences of the impact from these S&F programs were as compelling as they were revealing.

Outcomes showed the average number of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WMSD) injuries between these two periods had dropped 51.2%. The average number of OSHA-recordable injuries between these two periods also decreased 48.7%. Additionally – in OSHA lost-workday injuries – the average number had dropped 60.8%. Now, this study drew from a relatively small sample size, but results like this suggest that when S&F programs are implemented, the rates of WMSD injuries can potentially be decreased, dramatically.

‘Why Stop There – What About Workplace Stress?’

NIOSH implies that working conditions – based on experience and research – play a primary role in causing job stress. According to NIOSH, exposure to stressful working conditions can have a direct influence on worker safety and health. They go on to list ‘a relaxed and positive outlook’ among workforce members as a goal that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions – and by default – to reduce health and safety risk factors.

It appears job stress can produce a loss of focus, which is a common element – and cause – of hazardous workplace incidents. Ergonomic health and safety professionals might do well to look for signs of stress among the workers they evaluate. Once identified, implementing scientifically supported countermeasures might effectively help manage or reduce these hazardous situations. The impact on incident rates can then be tracked and documented.

‘Why Stop There – What About Workplace Distraction?’

Job stress isn’t the only factor to consider in the modern workplace. Deadline pressures and productivity goals are also some of the biggest workplace distractions. Allowing S&F breaks can help alleviate this problem by cognitively ‘wiping-the-slate-clean’. In essence, allowing workers an opportunity to recalibrate mentally as well as physically. Refocused employees may be more likely to pay closer attention to the job at hand and be better able to minimize noisome mental distractions.

Distracted and stressed workers – in operational environments particularly – pose worrisome potential for increasing workplace hazards. Workers with essential job functions that include operating heavy equipment, motorized gear or power tools are of special emphasis, but they’re certainly not alone. Those who perform maintenance work with energized equipment, those who work in permit-required confined spaces, and those who serve as ‘hole-watch’ or ‘fire-watch’ attendants must also be focused AND calm for optimal safety. Lives can depend on it.

Two Birds. One Stone.

So how do we draw on our innate human patterns of cognition and behavior to mitigate these situations of stress and distraction? Evolutionary pressures may have predisposed us to a wandering mind. It’s hardwired. Being on nondescript, constant alert may have served ancient ancestors on a primordial savannah. But there’s an echo effect. These days, clinical researchers recognize that modern life tends to be both complex and busy. This leads to higher rates of chronic workforce stress, amplified worker anxiety and perpetual distraction from the task at hand. We’re still on that savannah.

In this modern life, constant thinking about undone tasks drives distraction in an unending feedback loop. Bringing this nature of mind into focus is a powerful process known scientifically as ‘mindfulness’. Those who practice it reap benefits such as a healthy and dispassionate perspective on their stress. They also show a seamless adoption of sustainable stress management skills, and an increased ability to focus on any singular task at hand. Lastly, research has shown an interesting combination of improved long-term memory coinciding with a sharpened short-term concentration. Not a bad payoff from a change in perspective.

Mindfulness & Movement. Two Birds. One Stone. One S&F Break.

According to Mayo Clinic researchers, moving meditation practices like tai chi and yoga are ways to build the benefits of sedentary mindfulness around the added advantage of physical movement. They both emphasize similar elements such as focused breathing, deliberate motions and present moment awareness. Prevailing research outcomes point toward enhanced worker health and well-being, an improved workforce physical fitness, a functional approach to stress relief, and a reduction in a host of afflictive physical and cognitive conditions.

Originally developed as an ancient martial art, tai chi – for instance – has evolved into a very accessible form of modern exercise. Newer methods don’t emphasize a long series of specific, identical sequences, anymore. Instead, the emphasis is on the ‘flow’ of easy-to-follow, mindful movements. It’s a low-impact exercise that doesn’t stress muscles and joints, making it safe and ideal for all worker age groups and fitness levels. It can be performed anywhere indoors or outdoors, individually or in groups, and it requires no special equipment or gear.

The unifying characteristic that makes tai chi and yoga ideal elements to weave into an effective employee S&F program is the breath-work. Both disciplines employ deliberate slowing, deepening and modulating of the breath sequence. This recalibrates the workers autonomic nervous system away from it’s stressful ‘fight-or-flight’ sympathetic branch and toward it’s calming ‘rest-and-digest’ parasympathetic branch. Through this process worker heartrate slows, blood pressure drops, breath-rates level-out, hormones equalize and even digestion improves.

Groundbreaking neuroscience research is building on the studies of epigenetics, suggesting these benefits are not merely transient, but cumulative in their effects when learned and practiced. This points to our mental ‘software’ being able to rewire our physical neurocircuitry ‘hardware’. The implications suggest our workplaces can – through practice – become calmer, safer, more focused and more productive over time. What effect each individual has on his or her environment, their environment can have on them. The arrows of cause and effect point in both directions. Thus, it makes long-term sense to strive for a calm, focused, effective workforce.

The Tao of Ergonomics – Back to the Future

Ancient cultures who adopted meditation were far more physically active than modern ones. When an olden meditative practitioner ‘chopped wood and carried water’ all day – not to mention tended a garden or livestock and hunted game – that ancient practitioner earned the right to sit silently, and quietly focus for an extended period of time.

In modern life, being sedentary isn’t such an infrequent luxury. In fact, it’s an all-too-frequent lifestyle health hazard. This begs important questions of us as Ergonomists: How can we improve employee physical health by reducing WMSD’s while simultaneously minimizing workforce stress and distraction? How can we achieve this all in the service of making healthier, safer workplaces for our clients and their workforce? And how can we accomplish all of this both efficiently and effectively in the all-too-busy modern workday?

The answer is to think outside the box of conventional, 20th century western exercise. Why count pointless reps when we can focus on meaningful breaths? When incorporating some of these time-honored, scientifically-proven mindfulness with movement techniques, we can hit those two birds – both cognitive and physical performance – with one stone. Those who do so skillfully and appropriately will do more than improve workforce physical health. They’ll transform workplaces into safer, saner, more effective and efficient environments for all who work there. This is what positive corporate cultural change looks like, in theory and in practice. Perhaps it’s time we go back to the future.

A little about our author, Matt Jeffs DPT PSM CEAS –

Dr. Jeffs is a safety management advisor for national and international firms. He’s also a seasoned ergonomics educator here at The Back School. Years ago, he excelled as a big-wave surfer and an experienced ocean lifeguard with numerous rescues, prior to earning both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in physical therapy.

He now serves as a Tai Chi Fitness Instructor in multiple settings – including the modern workplace. Through his unique approach to ‘Meta-Physical Therapy’, Mind-Body Awareness is taught, learned, and cultivated into safer, healthier and more productive work environments.

Dr. Jeffs applies his quirky and unconventional long-term perspective to many undeservedly contentious trends. He hopes offering insight on how to make them work – for the most people possible – is a goal worthy of us all.

One thought

  • Nick Walker

    This is a very helpful and thought-provoking article.
    “According to NIOSH, exposure to stressful working conditions can have a direct influence on worker safety and health. They go on to list ‘a relaxed and positive outlook’ among workforce members as a goal that can help to reduce the effects of stressful working conditions – and by default – to reduce health and safety risk factors.”
    Can you please source this? Thank you!

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