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Ergonomics Projects: Compliance or Investment?

  • 4 min read

[This article was first published in Health & Safety Matters magazine, May 2013]

It seems to me there are two ways of thinking about the funding of workplace ergonomics and it is essential to identify which of these two modes applies to your employer (or client). Unless you do so, you may be wasting time and energy by approaching issues the wrong way.

“Compliance Mode” applies to organisations that accept their obligations but are not motivated to spend beyond the demands of minimum compliance.  They will do what they must in order to remain within the law but regard these commitments simply as unavoidable costs. And the way we all respond to costs is to make every effort to minimise them.

By contrast, “Investment Mode” applies to organisations which regard ergonomics (probably alongside health and wellbeing) programmes as investments in the business.  Their approach recognises that investing in the education, comfort, posture, health and fitness of the workforce will result in improved productivity to the benefit of the business as a whole.  Their focus will be to identify the return on that investment.

Sit-stand working

Clearly, these two modes are not absolutes and commercial pressures and available resources will also impact how an employer responds to any individual project.  However, my experience is that there will be an overriding culture within an organisation that will generally lean in one of these two directions which are, by definition, divergent views.

It is equally important to understand whether employees in the business actually share the organisational culture as it is publicly portrayed. If employees sneer at corporate initiative posters or make comments such as “they say that but …” about declared organisational intentions, there is clearly misalignment.  Other tell-tale signs of disparity in conversations with managers are expressions like “I hear what you’re saying but…” or references to “expectation management”.

“Engagement” is a word that frequently appears in discussions about getting buy-in for ergonomics, health & safety or wellbeing programmes and the level of staff engagement is frequently a good indicator about the organisational culture.  If personnel genuinely believe that their employer cares about their wellbeing, they probably work for an “Investment Mode” employer.

Dealing with Compliance Mode employers is a simple, if unfulfilling, process.  Conversations will be short-term by nature and the focus is on price.  Such organisations are not interested in medium-term returns and will, typically, buy a cheaper product even if it will have a disproportionately short life expectancy. Personnel in such organisations frequently do not see their own future in the business as long-term and, as such, are not concerned about considering the impact of a project too far into the future.

Hot desking

Investment Mode organisations are much more rewarding to work with but project acceptance should still not be taken for granted.  It is important to be properly prepared and ensure proposals are suitably focussed. Here are some ideas to achieve success:

  • Do your research. Ensure that you understand the objectives of the project and ensure your proposal matches them.  For example, if you are trying to improve the ergonomics of home-workers, is the question about the furniture or laptop use or the need to carry equipment around? (It’s probably all three!).  Remote working also raises major communication and training issues so it is important, not just to provide the right equipment, but to demonstrate how training and monitoring can be implemented.
  • Do not ignore the ancillary considerations. How important is the look of the product?  If the project relates to a new, state-of-the-art building, how will your proposal fit into the surroundings.  Often the adjustability and personalisation espoused by ergonomics may conflict with the architect’s vision.  All those individually set electric sit-stand desks will play havoc with the clean lines of the new open-plan design!
  • Are there other areas of the business where cost savings could be made as a result of this project?  For instance, buying laptop stands with a keyboard and mouse may save the purchase of docking stations and/or extension monitors.
  • Are there other ongoing projects or issues that this project would support.  What are the priorities of the Occupational Health or Wellbeing teams at the moment?  Speak to these departments as well as HR and IT in case there are mutual benefits.
  • Are there any other current initiatives that can be aligned to the project brief?  Is absenteeism, presenteeism or employee fitness a current focus?  How might your project help to improve these?
  • Are there any broader corporate objectives that you can include in your proposal? For example, what is the organisation’s position on sustainability?  How does it implement its CSR policies?  Often products promoted by ergonomics companies have a good environmental story that will align strongly with the corporate philosophy of an Investment Mode employer.

Finally, ensure you present a coherent financial case.  Remember that it’s the return on the investment that will ultimately win the argument.

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