Interview with an Ergonomist
As part of my series of interviews with people that get involved with different aspects of back pain I recently met with the ergonomist Jan Mulligan. Jan runs the Greenleafe Ergonomics consultancy and she was good enough to spend some time with me to answer some questions. This was a little daunting as she is extremely well qualified with two Masters of Science – one in Human Computer Interaction with Ergonomics and one in Cognitive Science and Intelligent Computing.
The role of an ergonomist could cover many things – what is your definition of an ergonomist?
My definition is the study of the individual within whatever environment one is trying to achieve a particular outcome. The aim of Ergonomics is to ensure and promote wellbeing, productivity, efficiency, and, where appropriate, profitability, through the prevention of injury, accident, and human error. To achieve this, whether we are considering the design of a new product or the use of an existing space, we need to take into account the purpose of the product, the tasks being conducted, any furniture or equipment being used, the environment in terms of heating, lighting and so on. Most importantly, however, we need to consider the individual (or user group), e.g. age, left or right handedness, height, weight and frame size may be pertinent, individual preferences in terms of how one carries out the task, and whether there are any pre-existing medical conditions, disabilities, or injuries that need to be taken into account.
What area of ergonomics do you mainly deal with now?
I specialise in workplace needs, disability and accessibility issues relating to IT use. Workplace does not, however, necessarily relate to paid work. My clients include charities, the education sector (schools, FE and HE colleges and universities), clubs, and individuals needing home-based or mobile solutions.
Have you noticed any particular concerns becoming more frequent within the last five years?
With the increase in mobile technology such as smartphones and tablets 24-7 connectivity is becoming more prevalent. This results in two areas of concern. Firstly, people can be (or may be expected to be) permanently connected and available; how many of your readers can honestly say they do not check their devices for work-related texts and emails in the evenings, at weekends and even whilst on holiday? Secondly, handheld devices introduce a whole host of postural concerns and potential for injury through repetition, e.g. texter’s-thumb.
Have you found any industries tend to need your help more than others?
The majority of my clients are office-based, computer users, where sitting at a desk all day is the norm. Often simple interventions such as regularly taking a Microbreak will have significant beneficial gains in terms of comfort and productivity. A Microbreak is a break of between 30-seconds and 2-minutes in length, taken at roughly 30-minute intervals. It is long enough to be beneficial, but not so long as to break one’s concentration. The break is used to perform gentle stretching exercises that allow for changes to as many muscles positions as possible. Changing physical and visual focus allows the body, eyes and brain to refresh.
Are there any trends in the age, sex or background of the people you help?
I do tend to see more women than men. Whether that is because of the nature of the work conducted by women versus men, that women are more willing to ask for help than men, or because they experience more symptoms it is hard to say.
Without giving away anything confidential can you give an example where you really helped an individual become much more comfortable, happy and hence efficient in the workplace?
Several years ago I worked with a lady who was experiencing severe RSI symptoms (repetitive strain injury). At the time she was in a senior clerical role within for a large government department and constantly under pressure to maintain high levels of productivity. She was very concerned that she might have to take early retirement on medical grounds as she was in so much pain and was struggling to keep up with the workload. Working together we considered several alternative working methods and, following a trial of options, agreed that a combination of regular Microbreaks, voice recognition, an adjustable ergonomic split keyboard and two ergonomic pointing devices (one for each hand) would offer her a flexible working set-up; allowing her to swap between working methods as her symptoms and work needs dictated. One of my colleagues was introduced to her recently and asked her whether the assessment had been successful. “Absolutely” she said. “It’s the reason I’m still working”. Feedback like that is why I do what I do and love what I do.
What aspects of your work give you the most satisfaction?
Meeting someone whose life has been turned upside down as a result of a road traffic accident, medical diagnosis or disability. With the best of intentions, family, friends, and even medical professionals will have prepared them for a life of low expectations. Within a short space of time I am able to show them possibilities and provide them with a set of recommendations that meet their individual needs, e.g. using different sizes, shapes and designs of keyboards and pointing devices, operating the computer through speech or eye gaze, using software to read out text from the screen; the possibilities are endless. The satisfaction of receiving an update from clients, especially if that update comes via an email from a person who previously could not have used a computer, is immense.
Would you recommend a young person to follow you in your chosen career?
I would, but with a caveat. There is no defined career path into the role I find myself in now. Over the years I have had a varied career including jobs in sales, customer services, finance, manufacturing, IT, disability and ergonomics. I believe this has given me a greater insight into people and the differences between us. Consequently, as well as gaining those essential qualifications to become an Ergonomist, I would encourage that young person to experience as many different jobs and work roles as possible in order to gain practical experience.
Jan’s practice, Greenleafe Ergonomics, is based in Kent. Whilst the majority of her clients are in London and the South East, Jan works with companies and individuals throughout the UK. Her contact information is below.