June 23, 2022
You don’t have to search for long to find the word ergonomic; it pops up everywhere, in connection with every sort of product and device for the workplace (and elsewhere). You can – so the marketeers will tell you – buy an ‘ergonomic’ chair, desk, keyboard or mouse. What’s wrong with that? An awful lot actually. The word ergonomic has a particular meaning. Ergonomics (note the crucial addition of an ‘s’ at the end), from the Greek ‘Ergos’ for work or labour and ‘Nomos’, meaning natural law, is the discipline of designing and arranging an environment to optimise the comfort and performance of the individual.
As such, it is contextual – nothing can be correctly called “ergonomic” in and of itself; it is only when you put it into a situation where it is a good fit for an individual and the particular task they’re undertaking.
For an item to be ergonomically sound, proper consideration must have been given to the user’s anthropometrics –their height, weight and individual body part measurements – and also how they will use that product. Sitting at a dining table might be perfectly acceptable to eat a meal, but take that same chair, table and human being and change the activity, working on a screen for instance, that changes the requirements entirely – and neck and shoulder ache will probably ensue.
So, a chair can’t be an “ergonomic chair” until you have established who will use it, the shape and size of the individual and what their activities will be whilst sitting in it. Similarly, making a desk top some shape other than rectangular does not automatically make it “ergonomic”!
Am I just being pedantic here? Is it just an issue of semantics? Misuse and misunderstanding of the word is a victimless ‘crime’ you may argue – who is really getting hurt if marketeers warp a word to fit their ends? Unfortunately, I believe it is the customer, the end user of these so-called ergonomic products, that could be materially harmed.
In a very tangible way, people are being misled
There is a serious point to be made about the general public understanding more about ergonomics, and we confuse them and hold back that understanding when we are vague in our use of language. The common misuse of a word serves to undermine or even erase its true meaning – and that matters, because ergonomics matters.
‘Ergonomic’ should be an incisive word, helping to properly shape how we think about the working environment and the interaction between the tools in use and the task in hand, but by distorting the meaning of the word, you are severing that conceptual link.
In a very tangible way, people are being misled. They are spending their money on tools and aids they believe have been designed to help them – but may be completely unattuned to their bodies and their needs.
When you have the likes of Forbes.com listing the top 10 chairs for homeworkers – some of which aren’t even adjustable – it begs the question – perfect for whom? A so-called ‘ergonomic stool’ might indeed be perfect for someone of 5’1’’, but virtually an instrument of torture for a strapping bloke of 6’6’’.
If a population has no real understanding of the meaning of ergonomics, especially in an age of ad hoc homeworking where trained professionals are notably absent from the design of many homeworking set-ups, that can have a widespread impact on physical and mental health and wellbeing.
There has been an explosion of hybrid and homeworking, but its inauspicious beginning during the pandemic was characterised by hasty make-shift arrangements, left unchanged more than two years later in far too many cases. I dread to think how many millions are still propping their laptop up on a kitchen table for seven hours a day, even now.
Whilst some employers – though worryingly few – have conducted the necessary workplace assessments for home and hybrid workers, investing in proper kit, with education and support to use it effectively, many have simply offered a cash lump sum (often not that large) for their staff to make their own purchases. And many more have done nothing at all.
Employers are shirking their responsibility – and marketeers are taking advantage
By searching for an ‘ergonomic’ desk or chair, advertised across the likes of Ikea, Wayfair, Amazon, and presented in the homeworking context regardless of suitability, these employees are seeking to equip themselves with the right tools.
But, hampered by a fundamental misunderstanding of the word, they may miss that vital step of personalisation and adjustment and end up with little or no improvement on the kitchen table arrangement that has been giving them back, neck and shoulder pain for the past 26 months.
By tasking their staff with making these purchases without the right knowledge and support, I would argue employers are shirking their responsibility – and marketeers and sales people are taking advantage. We now have companies using the word ‘ergonomic’ cynically, delivering little of meaning and value – as we see with ‘greenwashing’ words like ‘environmental’ or ‘locally-sourced’.
I think we can still reverse this unwelcome trend by using the word ergonomic and ergonomics appropriately as much as possible, explaining and educating where we can, and taking opportunities to kindly correct others. There are so many even within this sector who get this wrong – the numerous ‘ergonomic consultants’ out there for example – quite how they ‘fit’ their client is a source of endless fascination to me!
With all that being said, ‘ergonomic’ is an epithet we reluctantly apply to our products. Operating in this sector as we do, we understand we need to be searchable and findable online; when the average customer Googles ‘ergonomic chair’ we want them to make their way to our site, where they are in safe hands, so we have had to bow to the demands of SEO.
But I believe we can still fight the good fight on other fronts. Let us concentrate our efforts in our spoken language, our presentations, training and workshops – and our printed literature. Let’s stop talking about “ergonomic programmes” (it’s the outcomes that are ergonomic, not the programmes), “ergonomic success stories” (it’s the implementations that are ergonomic, not the stories) or the “ergonomic climate” (no idea what that is). Conversations about ergonomics programmes and ergonomics success stories actually make sense and all they needed was the extra letter “s”!
Once we are consistent, the general public may start to follow suit, and this useful word, describing something so important, will be used appropriately and so provide the clarity we need when creating healthy working environments.