The impact of ergonomics on employee productivity and well-being

Well-being is top of mind in many organizations, and productivity, while perhaps less popular to declare, has always been a priority. Most organizations have a clear idea of what good productivity means – getting the work done on time, with the resources available. I love the CDC definition of well-being, “Judging life positively and feeling good.”  How can ergonomics improve both?

When you work in awkward positions, or your job involves repetitive, heavy efforts, your body might not tolerate the demands well. When your body aches, it’s hard to think about anything else. Other thoughts that do pop up typically involve how to get out of that job, resumes, calling friends for referrals and scanning ‘Indeed’ during lunch breaks.

Let’s think about a few different types of work, and how ergonomics could have an impact.

  1. Long term care. Many jobs in this sector involve musculoskeletal (MSD) hazards such as reaching, pushing, and pulling, an area where ergonomics can have a big impact. Let’s explore the impact of ergonomics for personal support workers (PSWs), who typically perform some of the more demanding tasks. Let’s assume that the part of the home where Nancy works houses a few residents with abilities that vary greatly from day to day. Some days the residents can get from bed to chair on their own, but other days they need a lot of help. On their difficult days, Nancy has been instructed to ask for help when assisting the residents in transferring from bed to chair, chair to toilet, etc. When the home is short-staffed, this puts additional pressure on her co-workers, so she tries to avoid asking for help. Meagan, one of her co-workers, recently suffered a back injury, and Nancy has been asked to help her with some of her work. Understandably, residents can get downright cranky when they have to wait an hour to get help, and everyone feels like they just can’t keep up. Most days, Nancy goes home very tired, and questions whether this was the right career choice. She knows several other PSWs who have left the job recently.

An ergonomist would work with the PSWs to understand the issues and gather their ideas to improve the job. An ergonomist might suggest more transfer devices or other mechanical assists to support the PSWs in getting patients transferred safely. Safer transfers mean few injuries for residents and staff, and more efficiency in the department. The ergonomist might suggest scheduling adjustments to space out the need for transfers, so the PSWs were not trying to get everyone up at the same time, or equalizing the assignments so no one PSW was overloaded. The ergonomist might also help find Meagan an accommodation that would be less demanding for her coworkers. Improving job design could improve well-being, allow the PSWs to keep up, and also improve resident care.

  1. Pharmaceuticals and Packaging. Loading a machine with cartons can be a repetitive, awkward, heavy job. If this is the only thing Matt, the machine loader, does all day, he has a lot of time to think about other things. On good days, he thinks about fishing and new recipes he can try on his fancy new barbeque. But lately his back is sore, and he spends most of his time pondering how he could get transferred to a different job. He has been told to stretch his back between loads. And sometimes he’s in the middle of a long stretch when the “low carton” buzzer signals, causing the machine to go down. Every second that the machine is down causes 12 people to stop working, so eventually this attracts attention.

An ergonomist would study the carton loading machine, assess risk, and provide recommendations to improve the job. We would talk with Matt to understand when his back hurts, and why, and what he thinks could be done about it. The ergonomist might recommend a lift table to raise the pallet of cartons, or a different bundle size, or changes to the intake on the cartoner to make the job easier. Ultimately, we want Matt to go back to thoughts of his barbeque while keeping a closer eye on the carton machine.

  1. Automotive parts. Josh, an assembly line worker, connects two parts with 12 screws, using an air tool. After 2 hours at that job, he rotates to the next job on the line, where he connects two different parts with 14 screws. At the end of the day, he will have rotated to 4 jobs, and he will have installed over 5000 screws. He always works between Sarah and Monisha, who enjoy chatting about their 2-year old boys. Three of the 14 jobs in his rotation are really awkward, requiring him to reach and bend his wrist, and these jobs are harder on the “left” side of the line than the “right” side. On days when he is assigned to those three jobs, he usually skips his volleyball league and just watches TV to recover. He likes Sarah and Monisha, but he wishes he could occasionally chat with coworkers who share his interests. So far, he’s taken 3 half-days off for job interviews, but hasn’t had any offers yet.

Our ergonomists are big supporters of job rotation, but to have any benefit, the job demands within the rotation sequence need to provide variety during the day. An ergonomist would survey the team of workers to identify the most demanding jobs, and would evaluate and provide recommendations to reduce these demands. We would suggest an alternative rotation sequence, so workers were not exposed to the hardest jobs on the same day. Mixing up the sequence would have the additional benefit of allowing workers to have different “neighbors” throughout the day. Matt would get to work with all of his co-workers, and would not have “bad days” when his rotation placed him in the toughest jobs. And he wouldn’t need any more time off for interviews.

Well-being and productivity are tied together. An ergonomist will listen to workers, evaluate jobs objectively, and provide recommendations that will reduce injury risk, improve productivity, and ultimately allow workers to judge their work life positively and feel good at the end of the workday.


  1. What specific metrics or measures can be used to quantify the improvement in employee productivity and well-being resulting from ergonomic interventions?

Specific metrics or measures for quantifying the improvement in employee productivity and well-being resulting from ergonomic interventions could include factors such as reduced absenteeism rates, fewer work-related injuries or illnesses, increased employee satisfaction or morale surveys, enhanced job performance metrics (such as task completion rates or error reduction), and improvements in overall organizational productivity indicators. These measures provide tangible evidence of the impact of ergonomic changes on both the physical and mental well-being of employees, as well as their effectiveness in enhancing productivity.

  1. How do organizations ensure that ergonomic recommendations are effectively implemented and sustained over time, especially considering potential resistance or challenges from management or other stakeholders?

Ensuring effective implementation and sustainability of ergonomic recommendations involves a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, it requires strong support and commitment from organizational leadership to prioritize employee well-being and productivity enhancement initiatives. This may involve providing necessary resources, such as funding for ergonomic assessments and interventions, as well as allocating time for training and education on ergonomic principles. It’s essential to engage employees at all levels of the organization in the process, from frontline workers to management, to foster buy-in and participation. Regular monitoring and evaluation of the implementation progress, coupled with feedback mechanisms for continuous improvement, can help address any challenges or resistance that may arise. Finally, integrating ergonomic considerations into organizational policies and procedures ensures that these practices become embedded in the workplace culture, leading to sustained benefits over time.

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