Accountants spend huge amounts of time at their desks, many of which were acquired before the advent of multiple monitors and the knowledge of optimum ergonomic desk configurations. While most of us were taught in school that sitting up straight, having an organized study space with good lighting, and focusing on one subject at a time makes us more productive, those lessons are often forgotten within firms, particularly during the more hectic busy seasons when individual productivity really needs to be optimized.
When a discussion on ergonomics comes up, most partners think about extreme examples such as the lost productivity of a co-worker due to a repetitive stress injury or absenteeism caused by a person with a chronic issue such as back pain. While critical issues must take precedence, owners often forget about or discount the daily loss of productivity caused by an improper working environment. Improper equipment and subpar work environments create fatigue that causes more work errors, resulting in lower profitability. Add on top of that study after study pointing to the negative long-term effects on our bodies from too much sitting, and firm owners should realize that allocating time to promote proper ergonomics just makes good business sense. Below we summarize some core tenants of ergonomics as a starting point to building firm awareness.
If the firm has not previously addressed ergonomics, designating a project lead (usually the human resources person or firm administrator) to manage the process is the first step. The majority of ergonomic issues within a firm can be remediated with proper training, awareness, and equipment accommodations if the firm has a basic process in place to educate personnel and identify issues that require professional assistance. Comprehensive guides can be found on websites such as the Society for Human Resources Management and the Mayo Clinic, which have supporting articles, videos, and resource templates that provide the core knowledge that can be used to educate staff. To help partners get buy-in, there are also ergonomic cost-benefit case studies and calculators which place a dollar value on the process that can help support the effort. According to the website ErgoWeb: “70% of issues can be resolved with simple guidelines and education, 20% of issues require more details and alternative work methods, and the remaining 10% need special attention or problem solving from a specialist.” In most cases, the firm’s project leads with sufficient study and armed with the proper resources can address the needs of the 90% majority and identify the 10% where external professional resources are needed.
Today’s firm has evolved to allow CPAs to do more work virtually whether in the office or at home which has impacted how we use our workspace. While the ability to work via a tablet or smartphone has accountants glued to a screen when they are away from the office, the vast majority of CPA production still occurs via sit down workstations with more emphasis on screen real estate and keyboard/mouse entry than ever before. Unfortunately, the CPA workspace has not always evolved with the working needs so firms can provide basic guidance on optimizing chair, desk and monitor configuration as well as exercises to reduce strain:
- Chair: A proper fitting chair will allow the user to place their feet comfortably flat on the floor. This can be accomplished by either an adjustable chair or by providing a solid footrest if the seat is higher to accommodate the workspace. The chair should have armrests that allow the user to have their arms comfortably at their side and their wrists at a flat or slight uphill angle to the keyboard without having pressure points on the wrists. The back of the chair should follow the natural curve of the user’s back to provide lower back/lumbar support. If the user’s chair does not have an adjustable back, there are a variety of back and lumbar seating supports that may work in lieu of getting a new chair. Users should not experience physical discomfort when working. If they do, they should be directed to notify the human resources lead person who can suggest adjustments and equipment accommodations, as well as exercises. If the employee continues to experience discomfort in their work area, the human resources person should bring in professional resources to work with the employee.
- Desk: Most of the desks we see in firms were purchased before the advent of triple monitors and the user’s workspace has evolved to accommodate the transition from doing the majority of work on paper to doing almost all work onscreen. To minimize wrist strain, the keyboard should be positioned so the user’s wrists are comfortably straight. Equipment can be added to lower the keyboard or add a wrist rest to provide support when not inputting data. As mentioned above, studies are finding that sitting for long periods of time is unhealthy and it is suggested that, at a minimum, users should take a 30-60 second standing or walking break every 20-40 minutes. Recently, there has been a trend towards firms adopting adjustable, “standing” desks for personnel with back issues, which has lead to noticeable improvements in individual productivity. This, in turn, has lead to others adopting standing desks as a healthier alternative spawning a cottage industry of adjustable desks ranging from products that sit on top of existing desks (VariDesk VersaTablesOFM 5100, and Ergotron WorkFit) to automated products that completely replace the desk (NextDesk, Evodesk, Jarvis, and Steelecase).
- Monitors: Multiple monitors are one of the hallmarks of the digital environment and most users have evolved to using dual oversize, triple, or even quadruple monitors on their desktops. A study done by HP a number of years ago pointed to the optimal distance for two traditional monitors (i.e. 17”-19” screens) to be 25” while three screens were 35.” Early adopters of triple monitors found the distance caused eye squinting or neck craning because the resolution of the monitors was not as sharp. Older monitors also caused eye strain because of lower resolution and screen flickering, so firms should evaluate replacing older units that are less than 20” with larger, higher resolution displays (minimum of 1920×1080) having a faster refresh rate to minimize this fatigue. The general consensus is that external screens monitors be placed at arms’ length with the top of the screen being no more than a few inches above eye level. If the user wears glasses with multifocal prescriptions, the top of the screen should be no higher than eye level to minimize neck craning. For users with oversized monitors that primarily work on one screen, the monitor should be centered. For those using dual oversized monitors, the two screens should be centered with the middle at approximately a 30-degree angle. Neck strain can be worse for personnel that is inputting data from physical documents lying on the desktop so firms should utilize a document holder at screen height, or preferably, scan in the source documents and work off a parallel monitor at the same height. The CPAFMA 2017 Paperless Benchmark survey found that 51% of respondents utilized triple screens and that 33% had adopted “Dual Oversize” as their standard, with 40% utilizing at least one of their monitors in a vertical, “portrait” mode.
- Exercise: Accounting desk work often leads to long periods of inactivity which can strain various parts of the body. An important part of any ergonomics program is to educate staff on how to minimize any bodily strain with exercise and physical accommodations. In addition to promoting overall fitness and health, firms should provide employees with access to charts and videos that demonstrate stretches and exercises for specific areas of discomfort (neck, upper body, lower back, forearm, sitting and standing exercise) which can be found at the websites previously mentioned. Also, since accountants spend so much time looking at screens, training and tools to reduce eye strain should also be incorporated. One method is the “20-20-20 rule” which states that employees should take a break every 20 minutes and look at objects that are 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. For people that have major eye fatigue, there are applications (Workrave, Eye Defender, Eyes Relax, Time Out) that actively time and alarm users when it is time to take a break. Think of these as a FitBit for your eyes.
Designating a person to be responsible for firm ergonomics and providing basic ergonomic awareness training to all firm personnel will not only improve everyone’s productivity but also help the firm identify individuals that are at higher risk of workplace injuries so the firm can respond proactively (when the costs of remediation are lower). Promoting better ergonomics is also a way for owners to visually show they value employees, and promoting a healthy environment just improves the firm’s culture.
This article was originally published for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in 2015. Copying or distribution without the publisher’s permission is prohibited.