As healthcare demographics continue to shift, the older generation is giving way to a new wave of healthcare workers known for their lifelong relationship with technology.

These “millennials” generally range in current age from 18 to 34 years. These incoming healthcare workers present unique challenges for hospital employee health professionals, as many are both tech savvy and ergonomically challenged.

“Management tends to look at millennials as a ‘different’ workforce but, in actuality, each generation had their own ‘quirks,’ so to speak,” says Kathy Espinoza, assistant vice president of ergonomics and safety for the insurance brokerage and consulting firm of Keenan & Associates in Torrance, CA. “Boomers were the rebellious, long-haired ‘hippie people’ of the ‘60s and felt entitled to challenge the status quo, and still do. Boomers have always been the largest group in the workforce, but they no longer reign.”

Indeed, census data for 2015 indicate there are some 75 million millennials in the workforce, surpassing the boomers and heading toward a projected peak of 81 million in 2036, she notes. Espinoza recently spoke on this topic at the annual conference of the Association of Occupational Health Professionals in Healthcare and agreed to field a few questions from Hospital Employee Health.

HEH: Can you comment generally on some of the ingrained habits these workers bring to a healthcare setting, i.e., poor posture and work habits that are far removed from the sit-straight-up-and-type days?

Espinoza: Millennials grew up with technology and don’t know a world without it. The problem is that it’s ‘mobile’ technology, which allows them to use their devices at the kitchen counter, in bed, on a couch, at the table, while gaming, yet rarely at a typical workstation. They have lived with poor, slouching posture since they were able to turn the device on.

The problem with the new millennial workers is that what feels typical and normal is actually a ‘high-risk’ posture that we know is not good for them. Normally, we tell employees to let comfort be their guide, but this doesn’t work with millennials. They have become accustomed to their poor posture and now, when at the workplace, this ‘new’ posture feels awkward to them. That’s why the education behind the ergonomics becomes so important. The employer’s attitude of “because I said so” doesn’t work when trying to get millennials to pay attention to their posture. They need to understand why it’s important to have better posture. Risk factors for injury have not changed — the “exposure” to technology has changed.

One of the biggest differences seen with millennials is that they are not “touch typists.” Computer keyboarding and business typing is not taught in schools as much anymore. The “hunt and peck” method of input forces the user to type with their head down for extended periods of time, which can become painful.

HEH: On the plus side, what are some strengths millennials bring to the healthcare workforce? For example, given their tech mastery, are they easier to train?

Espinoza: Millennials bring many strengths to our healthcare workforce. They grew up working within groups or teams in the classroom, so they integrate well within departments and with ‘team’ assignments. Growing up with technology allows them a greater understanding and acceptance of online types of training. They accept the fact that technology changes often and they applaud upgrades and new systems to discover. Boomers had to ‘adapt’ to technology, whereas millennials ‘embrace’ it. Millennials are a very creative group and bring an excitement to the healthcare workforce. They are most likely to ask, “Why do we do it that way?” so it’s important to listen to them and hear their ideas to make the work process smoother. Another fabulous characteristic of millennials is that they are very civic-minded. They want to do the right thing for the right reasons and make the world a better place. This is great news for employers because they will champion a recycling program, volunteer and community efforts, and will enhance the healthcare organization’s brand image.

HEH: What are some strategies hospital employee professionals can use to reach this group in terms of ergonomics training and general safety and wellness?

Espinoza: Everyone, not just millennials, can get stuck in a bad habit or routine. It’s important to include ergonomics, safety, and wellness up front by including these topics in the new hire onboarding process — the earlier, the better — before bad habits set in. Millennials started life with terrible tech habits and have gotten used to them.

HEH: You mention that these workers may have pre-existing ergonomics injuries. Can you elaborate on the causes and how this issue should be addressed by employee health professionals?

Espinoza: The problem is that they are entering the workforce with pre-musculoskeletal injury levels that most employees typically don’t experience until they’ve been working for 10 or 20 years. To compound this, their ‘after-work’ activities should be addressed as well. Common Sense Media reports that in 2015, the average teen — your future hire — spends nine hours a day on a device. Add these nine hours to their new job on a computer and you have a ‘claim-ready’ new hire.

Many years ago, people didn’t bring work home or become consumed with technology and devices after work. They may have mowed the lawn, puttered around the house and talked to each other, eye to eye. Today, millennials tend to come home from work and game for hours. It’s important to educate them on proper posture and habits at work and at home. The line between work and home has never been more blurred than it is today with smartphones that allow us to email, message, and text. So, where did the injury occur — at home or at work? For employee health professionals, this means talking about what they do at home and how to make that safer and more comfortable (e.g., laptop and tablet stands). The bottom line is that work may not be causing the problem — work may be exacerbating the problem.

Another point to remember with millennials is they grew up in a world where “everybody got a trophy.” With ergonomics, if the employee health professional provides an ergonomics evaluation to one employee, they must be prepared to help everyone in the office. If an employee has a claim which provides a secondary gain of a new sit/stand workstation, a better keyboard, a new mouse, new chair, etc., you could have a case of ‘ergo envy’ that will have everyone else in the office putting in a claim just to get the new equipment. Be prepared to ‘share the ergo love’ around the office. Take the time to adjust everyone’s chairs and monitors and let them know they are important, too.

HEH: Any points of emphasis you would like to make not addressed in these questions?

Espinoza: A final note to healthcare professional boomers: Millennials are here to stay and there is a good chance that we will all be working for one soon enough. It’s important to realize that habits are hard to break, feedback and follow-up are very important to millennials, and that they enjoy communicating with you through text, using their own language. To help you with the integration, here are a few fun examples on understanding their language and texts:

LOL: To a millennial, this means Laugh Out Loud. To a boomer, it means Life on Lipitor.

BFF: This means Best Friends Forever to millennials. To boomers, it means Best Friend’s Funeral.

IMHO: In My Humble Opinion to millennials, to boomers this means Is My Hearing-aid On?