Filed Under:Risk Management, Loss Control

Sit up straight: Millennials, safety and ergonomics

With more and more workers utilizing mobile technology or working from home, some of these practices can lead to poor ergonomic practices and related workers' compensation claims. (Photo: Shutterstock)
With more and more workers utilizing mobile technology or working from home, some of these practices can lead to poor ergonomic practices and related workers' compensation claims. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Millennials are often regarded as being a “different” workforce. However, each generation has had its own quirks.

Boomers are seen as the long-haired, rebellious hippies of the ‘60s who wanted to challenge the status quo and sometimes still do. They’ve historically been the largest generation in the workforce, but that dominance no longer holds.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, millennials (age 18-34) surpassed the baby boom generation in 2015 by having 75.3 million move into the workforce. Moreover, their numbers are expected to peak at 81.1 million in 2036.

New-world habits can be hard to break


Millennials
have grown up in world where technology is pervasive and is moving more and more to mobile devices. The downside is mobile technology enables them to use their devices basically anywhere from the kitchen counter or dining table to in bed or on the couch while gaming or interacting on social media – yet rarely at a workstation. As a result, they’ve lived and developed poor, slouching posture ever since they were old enough to turn on the device. 

The fundamental concern with new millennial workers is that what may seem normal to them is in reality a high-risk posture that’s simply not good for them. We typically tell employees to let comfort be their guide, but this guideline doesn’t apply with millennials. Unfortunately, they are now accustomed to poor posture, and a new posture at the workplace can feel awkward. That’s why education on ergonomics becomes so essential.

Related: Harris Poll finds growing interest about insurance brands from millennials

But a “because I said so” attitude from the employer doesn’t work when trying to have millennials pay attention to their posture. They need information to understand and accept why it’s important. The usual risk factors for injury have not changed. It’s the omnipresent exposure to technology that’s new.

One of the big changes with millennials is the fadeout of old-school touch typing. Business typing, and even computer keyboarding, are not taught in schools as much anymore. That leads to a hunt-and-peck method, forcing users to type with their head down for extended periods of time, which can become painful.

group of millennials working together on a project

Among millennials' greatest strengths are their ability to work together in groups or teams, and to effectively utilize technology. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Understand intrinsic needs


Other common millennials traits to address include:

Feedback. More than any other, the millennial generation craves feedback. In contrast, boomers are used to annual performance evaluations. But millennials need it much more frequently. So schedule monthly visits with new hires for the first few months and ask them about their workstation setup. You’ll connect with them and can gauge how they’re doing. Keep in mind that their parents were very attentive to their “specialness,” and they may expect that from their bosses. Take the time to listen.

Immediate satisfaction. Technology in the palm of a millennial’s hand allows immediate answers to life’s questions. In terms of ergonomics, offer a selection of devices, keyboards, mice, monitor stands, etc., that they can try out immediately. Most ergonomic equipment offers a free trial period. Make sure your vendors respond quickly to purchase orders so you can deliver quickly on your equipment recommendations.

What’s new? It’s a very tech-savvy group that loves having the latest and greatest devices. Stay on top of new ergonomic equipment coming out and the research behind it. A great resource is the annual National Ergonomics Conference that has hundreds of vendors and products on display.

Capitalize on their strengths


That said, millennials do bring many strengths to the workforce. For example, having worked in classroom groups or teams, they assimilate well within departments and when working on team assignments. A high familiarity with technology enables them to understand and accept online types of training more readily. They also accept that technology changes frequently and applaud upgrades and new systems they can discover. In other words, where boomers had to adapt to technology, millennials were born into it and embrace it. 

Related: Thinking millennial: How to woo the largest generation

They are also a very creative group and can bring excitement to the workforce by asking, “Why do we do it that way?” So it makes sense to listen to and consider their ideas for making work processes smoother. Another tremendous characteristic millennials exhibit is a strong civic mindedness in wanting to do the right thing, for the right reasons and build a better world. That drive is excellent news since, as employees, they believe in giving back to communities which can enhance the organization’s brand image.

millennials working on computers

Since they are so used to working on technology from anywhere, millennials may not understand the benefits to good ergonomic practices. (Photo: Shutterstock) 

Implement safety and wellness strategies


What’s important is to address ergonomics, safety and wellness up front in the onboarding process for new hires. And the sooner, the better, before bad habits set in. Since millennials began early with terrible technology-based behaviors, they’ve gotten used to them. In fact, many are coming into the workforce with levels of pre-MSD (musculoskeletal) injury that most employees don’t experience until after 10 or 20 years on the job. 

Related: 10 reasons why an insurance career is great for millennials

After-work activities must be addressed as well. According to Common Sense Media (2015), the average teen logs nine hours each day on his or her device. Add that time to their new job working on a computer, and it’s a “claim-ready” situation.

Some proactive strategies to consider include:

Wellness. Ergonomics should become a fundamental aspect of your wellness program and vice-versa. That’s because although a healthy employee still can become injured, their recovery time will be quicker.

Onboarding. Make ergonomics, safety and wellness an integral element in new hire orientation. For example, the longer it takes to help them set up their workstation, the longer their bad habits will solidify and affect your organization.

Involve IT. This means training your IT team on proper workstation set up when delivering a computer, mouse and keyboard for a new employee. Do not wait until a millennial complains of pain before addressing proper ergonomics.

Purchasing. Keep your purchasing department up to speed with well-proven ergonomic solutions. Don’t ever allow employees to simply buy what they think they need. Not all products displaying an “ergo” label are valid.

Online training. It’s the preferred learning method for millennials. They often find classroom-style training to be boring and frustrating to them, which can easily turn them off. Their brains move faster than other generations of workers, constantly striving for new, readily-accessible information. They move quickly from screen to screen, often with loud music or other media in the background. As trainers on ergonomics, safety and wellness, we need to jazz up the experience to appeal to this faster-paced generation. Online ergonomics training works well to help triage and prevent problems sooner rather than later.

woman using a cell phone

Mobile technology has made it much easier to work around the clock, but companies should still encourage workers to utilize good ergonomic practices at home as well. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Discuss after-hours activities


In the past, bringing work home was rare, as was becoming consumed with technology after work (e.g., Facebook, Messaging, Instagram, Solitaire, Candy Crush Saga). In the days of pre-mobile technology, people mowed the lawn, puttered around the house and talked to each other, eye-to-eye after work. Today, millennials tend to get home and play games for hours on end.

Related: Workers’ Compensation: 10 issues to watch for 2017

For all of us, the boundaries between work and home are more blurred than ever because it’s easy to review work emails and projects at home, on our handheld devices. This is an important phenomenon because it makes it harder to determine where the injury actually occurred. It’s crucial to talk to millennial workers about what they do at home and how they can create a safer and more comfortable environment to prevent injuries.

Share the ergo love


Also remember that millennials grew up in an “everybody gets a trophy” world. If you provide an ergonomics evaluation to one individual, you should be prepared to help everyone else in that immediate work area. If an employee claim results in a secondary gain like a new sit/stand workstation, better keyboard, new mouse or new chair, you may encounter a case of “ergo envy” with others putting in claims just to get new equipment. So share the ergo love around the office and take the time to adjust monitors and chairs. Let everyone know they’re important.

Kathy Espinoza (kespinoza@keenan.com), MBA, MS, CPE, CIE, is a board-certified professional ergonomist. She is assistant vice president, ergonomics and safety, for Keenan and has worked with the firm for 14 years providing workstation assessments, solutions and employee training. She has more than 12 years of experience as the coordinator and instructor of chronic back pain and wellness programs for a major hospital. She has published 62 articles in the field of ergonomics, safety and workplace issues.

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