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Its Good Business To Sit Up Straight

Improving office productivity is no longer only purview of HR managers, Operations managers or even CEOs. Today governments are getting in on the act as the search for greater productivity goes down the road of global outsourcing directly affecting national GDP figures. Eschewing hi-tech solutions and management productivity tools such as ‘six-sigma’, lets revisit a simple but effective age-old remedy – good posture.

Despite the advent to mobile computing and the rise of the ‘road-warrior’ class, 67% of office workers are more tied to their desk than they were two-years ago according to a new research commissioned by NEC-Mitsubishi.

The research surveyed over 2,000 adults in the United Kingdom in 2004 showed that the extra desk-time, poor desk ergonomics and work habits are forming a new threat to productive office-life. This condition, the ‘Irritable Desk Syndrome’, if left uncontrolled can quickly escalate persistent desk symptoms of irritation to chronic aches and pains.

One-fifth of Singaporeans suffers from back and neck pains

According to a Back Society of Singapore survey of over 1,000 adults, 18% of Singaporeans suffer from back and neck pains at any one point of time. This puts us in the same ‘class’ as developed countries such as the UK and US facing the same magnitude of back and neck problems.

In the UK, back pain alone cost over £5 billion each year in lost productivity with bad work posture being a major contributor. Yet, this global multi-billion dollar problem surprisingly need not require a multi-billion dollar solution.

In the NEC-Mitsubishi survey, 35% of respondents admitted that it would be fairly simple to move their equipment into a place that would allow them to sit more comfortably and adopt a better posture, costing them little or nothing to do so.

Benefits of good posture

Never has the old refrain, “Sit Straight! Don’t slouch”, been more relevant than in today’s context. While perhaps more for poise, confidence and dignity when meted out by schoolmasters, good posture from sitting or standing straight helps us avoids the strain it places on our muscles, joints, and ligaments beyond what nature intended. Besides helping us look more energetic, good posture actually helps us breathe better and avoid affecting the position and function of our vital organs in the abdominal region.

In preventing postural induced chronic pains, it is not enough to know what good posture is but actually maintaining it for prolonged periods. Slouching a few seconds a day does not lead to chronic bad backs. Slouching all day long is another matter altogether. Similarly, sitting or standing right for a just few moments a day is not going to prevent bad backs. We need to find and hold our posture ‘right’ for most part of the day, all day if possible.

Sustaining Good Posture

The key to good sustained posture is a combination of ergonomics and active muscle control. Ergonomics helps provide us with the necessary support throughout the day. However, this is not sufficient. Ergonomically well-designed furniture and equipment are passive and provided little or no carry over effects. A simple example would be your office chair - once you get off your chair, it no longer provides you with the necessary support. This is where active muscle control comes in.

Active muscle control

One common reason most of us find it hard to maintain a good posture is simply that the key postural muscles are weak. General exercises such as jogging or sit-ups are not specific enough to strengthen these muscles. In fact, vigorous exercises tend to increase the load and shock your spine has to endure further accelerating wear-and-tear. Which exercises should you be doing then?

Here are two basic exercises that most of us would be able to do almost anywhere:

To strengthen the deep abdominal muscles to support your lower back:

  1. Tighten and lift pelvic floor up to the navel
  2. Pull your lower abdomen in
  3. You should feel your back tighten and waist drawn in
  4. Repeat three to four times.
  5. Repeat this entire exercise at least three times a day.

To strengthen the muscles support your neck:

  1. Relax the arms
  2. Pull your shoulders down and in
  3. Avoid arching back when drawing your shoulders in and down
  4. Repeat three to four times.
  5. Repeat this entire exercise at least three times a day.

Even as the fittest marathon runner cannot run forever without eventually collapsing from exhaustion, active muscle control alone is insufficient to sustain good posture all day long – good desk ergonomics and good habits such as taking breaks from prolonged sitting or standing positions are essential.

A lifestyle choice

While the costs of lost productivity to employers are enormous, we cannot neglect the quality of life impact it has on employees beyond work, unquantifiable in monetary terms. To borrow a quote from Dr. Halfdan Mahler, former Director-General of WHO - “Health is not everything. But without health, everything else is nothing”.

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