When your employees spend one-third (or more) of the day slaving away — whether it’s in front of a computer, on the production line, or at a construction site — they’re bound to face some health risks. Even the most innocuous work situations (sitting at a desk) can lead to serious chronic health issues in the long-term.
So while every job and industry has its own unique circumstances, there are some health risks that are pretty universal — here are seven to be aware of and some tips on how to avoid them to keep every employee happy, healthy, and fully engaged:
1. Chronic stress
There’s a reason it’s called “work,” right? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be killing us. Chronic stress is linked to nearly every major modern health concern, from cardiovascular disease to obesity to even brain damage. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2012 Stress in America Survey, 65% of Americans cited work as a top source of stress. The concern is even worse for those with low salaries — money consistently tops Americans’ list of stressors.
Long hours and excessive workloads are all culprits too, but so is lack of support (from managers and coworkers) and feeling unengaged, unchallenged, and unmotivated. These are the things you need to target first to combat stress in the office: Promote team-building activities, encourage open communication among all employees, and establish concrete, practical goals. Create a comfortable environment where employees can mentally get away if they need to, and encourage small breaks. If your company can sway it, opt to organize a company-wide wellness program.
Ever forget to eat lunch but end up snacking your way through the day with whatever happens to be in the office kitchen? Erratic eating patterns like this can be a detriment to your body, stressing it out and leading to hormonal imbalances that can lead to calorie and fat storage. Of course, this worsens if you’re sitting for the majority of your day. (And, guess what? Even a standing desk has its risks.) Being overweight or obese can lead to greater risks for injury and illness in the workplace as well.
And here’s where that wellness plan can really promote health and drive employee engagement, as long as everyone knows how to get the most out of it. Preparation is key to sticking to a solid, effective nutrition and wellness plan. Help create a healthy environment, with a kitchen stocked with nourishing snacks and a comfortable break or nap room. Encourage walk-and-talk meetings and physical team activities to break up the day and keep the brain and body stimulated.
3. Chemical and toxic exposure
Obviously some jobs will involve greater risks of exposure to toxic chemicals and hazardous materials, including construction, manufacturing, maintenance, and health care positions. Still, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as many as 1.3 million people in the United States work at a place where they’re exposed to significant amounts of asbestos.
All employees should be fully aware of the risks involved if they work with or near any possible toxins. Wear proper protective equipment when necessary. For those in an office, be sure your building is up to code, particularly if it was built before 1970.
4. Neck and lower back pain
This can be a problem for office workers as much as those working at a restaurant, in the field, or at a factory. According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, back pain in workers 40 to 65 years old costs employers an estimated $7.4 billion per year! Standing for long periods at a time, slouching in front of a computer, or even sitting up straight improperly (arching your lower back) can all lead to neck and lower back pain.
First thing: Learn what “good posture” really means — this is a great resource. Strengthening your abdominals will also help support your back. Yoga is one of the best ways to understand correct alignment, loosen up tightened hip flexors (often due to long periods of sitting), and increase strength and flexibility — all of which will help protect your neck and spine.
5. Carpal tunnel syndrome
Repetitive motions will wear down any part of the body, and those working with their hands (including tapping at a keyboard) have a greater risk for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which is characterized by sharp pain, numbness, and tingling in the fingers and possibly the arms. This is due to the compression of the median nerve, which runs through the wrist.
To avoid this possible outcome, rest your hands often (every 20 minutes is ideal), stretch and roll your wrists, and do mini exercises with your hands (e.g., make a fist and then stretch out your fingers; repeat 5–10 times). And did you know those cushy wrist pads on certain keyboards are actually meant to be used as a guide? Do not rest your wrists on these as you type; instead, you’ll want to hover your wrists over these pads.
6. Contagious illnesses
Don’t you love it when you’ve got an employee or coworker hacking or sniffling all around you? The most common workplace illnesses include the common cold, stomach flu, and strep throat. While some people may be able to work through such illnesses, it can debilitate others with weaker immune systems.
Encourage (i.e., gently force!) employees to stay home if they’re experiencing any hints of symptoms. Many of these viruses can be spread before any symptoms reach their peak. Again, a wellness plan can keep all employees on a healthier track, which will boost their immune systems overall. Have some natural immune boosters on hand too: things like herbs and herbal teas (ginger, turmeric, and echinacea are great), citrus (vitamin C is vital), and fresh fruits and vegetables.
7. Eye strain
More and more of us are staring at screens for the good majority of our day, and our eyes are severely paying for it. In fact, there’s actually a term for it: computer vision syndrome (CVS). It’s similar to carpal tunnel syndrome in that it’s caused from repetitious motions in the eyes. And the flicker and glare of a screen is much harder on the eyes than, say, reading a paper. This can lead to blurred vision, eye irritation, and headaches.
Researchers have found that the optimal position for your monitor is slightly below eye level and about 20 to 28 inches away from your face. Try to reduce any glare, and most importantly, give your eyes a much-needed break every 20 minutes or so. Admire a photograph on your desk, look out the window, or simply shut your peepers for a minute (just don’t fall asleep!).
As you can see, work can be a dangerous affair — but it doesn’t have to be. Ensuring that all employees are aware of any potential health risks will keep them healthy, strong, and more productive and satisfied with their work. Health should be your absolute number one priority: It will benefit each individual, and thus, the company as a whole.
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