Guest Column

Emotional ergonomics affects productivity

High turnover, low morale linked to Emoerg

By William W. Simonds
National Director, Disability Management
Zenith Insurance Co., Woodland Hills, CA

Emotional ergonomics, sometimes referred to as "emoerg," is a fast-growing element of ergonomics in general. Various definitions have been offered, most having to do with the interaction between the workplace and the employee. Unfortunately, most of what is written on emotional ergonomics places a greater emphasis on understanding the emotional make up of the employee than it does on the emotion impact of the workplace. For example, there is great discussion about having supervisors understand the emotional landscape of the employee, but little or no discussion about the impact of the lack of control of workflow on the employee.

Consider a high-volume call center at peak times of the year. Calls come in continuously, with a backlog of unanswered calls waiting in queue. Reps are fed the calls automatically, without the need to even pick up a receiver or push a button, sometimes with as little as three seconds between phone calls. The process is very efficient, but it is no wonder call centers are derisively referred to as the sweatshops of the new millennium. Employees are managed to shorter calls (read: more calls per hour/day) for better results.

The impact of all this is not a broken arm or a slip and fall; the impact is excessive turnover, low morale, and a higher than expected number of performance issues. And all of these are the result of management that doesn’t understand the emotional impact of the workplace on the individual — emotional ergonomics.

Adjusting the workplace

Just as physical ergonomics adjusts aspects of the workplace to fit the physical person, so emotional ergonomics adjusts the workplace to fit the emotional person.

In our example of the high-volume call center, simple strategies could reduce the high emotional impacts of peak times. For example, allowing the employee to answer the phone by some physical act changes the perception that the employee is at the mercy of the machine. You still can manage to the same call handling times, but the simple act of pushing a button or picking up a receiver can significantly change attitudes and enhance performance.

The best physical ergonomics occur when the workplace is made flexible and the employee is empowered to adjust it to his or her own comfort level. Monitors that tilt and are mounted on adjustable stands, chairs that adjust to the shape and size of the individual, work surfaces that can be raised or lowered at will are all examples of such an approach.

However, managers are not trained to see the workplace in emotional terms. What is the impact of headsets that project the caller’s voice in stereo into the middle of the employee’s head? What is the impact of cubicles constructed of soundproof materials, but then covered with notices, job aids and reference lists that all collect and reflect sound back at the employee? What is the impact to a fast-food worker who is stuck on the register with an endless line of customers while his friends are doing fries or working the grill and talking with one another?

Consider also that one of the costs of faulty or missing emotional ergonomics also is the direct costs of disability in the workplace, both worker’s comp and nonoccupational lost time.

Of adults ages 18 to 65, almost one in four find their work is impaired by either major depression or panic attacks.1 Similarly, a study of a large bank merger revealed that when all causes of work disruption were analyzed (lost time, presenteeism and casual absences) that employees with digestive issues lost almost half their productivity (15.96 hours) per week. One suspects there is an element of stress involved here. The next highest impact for lost productivity was mental health-related issues at 13.19 hours per week.2

The growing emphasis on emotional ergonomics is necessary and none too late. Consider the historical progression of types of disabilities incurred in the work place. Table A illustrates the three major work paradigms of the last 100 years and their impact on the causes of lost time.

This is reflected in data from a large disability database. From 1995 to 1998, the insurance industry has seen the explosive growth of classes of disabilities that could be impacted by effective emoerg.3 (See Table B.)

The necessary first steps in developing any program to mitigate the impact of these emotional injuries must be the recognition of the emotional impact of normal workflow and changes in that workplace on the individual. Second, line management must share the costs of these collisions. Lost time should not be charged to some corporate cost center. The costs of lost time should be attributable to the department that creates it. Similarly, the savings of a good return to work program should also be allocated to those departments that support it through "lost-time credits." There must be an incentive to bring people back to work.

And finally, the employee should be considered a resource in the redesign or reorganization of the workflow. They are, after all, the experts in the emotional impact of the work place on the individual.

References

1. Kessler et al. JOEM 2001; 43(3):218-225.

2. Burton et al. JOEM 1999; 41(10):863-877.

3. UnumProvident, Emerging Disabilities. Chattanooga, TN; 2000.

[Editor’s note: William W. "Skip" Simonds is responsible for the development and implementation of return-to-work and vocational rehabilitation programs throughout Zenith Insurance Co. and its policyholders. He speaks and writes extensively on matters pertaining to return to work and assistive technology. He is a member of the Arlington, VA-based Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America and has been certified in Assistive Technology Applications by the California State University at Northridge. In addition, Simonds has provided consultative input to companies such as Compaq, Microsoft, and IBM on a wide variety of return-to-work and assistive technology development issues. Simonds can be reached at (818) 251-5858.]