European work survey: ergonomics  

"The European world of work” by IPSOS for Steelcase International 

Noise and visual disturbances are the most troublesome elements at work.

Schiltigheim, France, 26th November 2007 - Steelcase International, the EMEA division of Steelcase Inc., the global leader in the office furniture industry, disclosed today the second part of the results of a new survey related to "The European world of work”. Conducted in September 2007 by IPSOS Public Affairs, the study examined several issues such as the storage, comfort and ergonomics, as well as success at work. The survey was conducted by interviews of more than 2400 European white collars from France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and United Kingdom.

Most bothersome elements at work
The main bothersome elements mentioned by European are noise (59%), visual disturbances (46%), temperature (43%), and the lack of control of brightness (36%). Significant differences can be observed from one country to another:

  • Noise is mentioned more by 72% of French white collars
  • Visual disturbances are judged as more disturbing in Italy (53%)
  • The lack of control over daylight is mentioned more by the French (48%) and Italian (45%)
  • Germans seem to be the happiest about their workplace, not complaining often about it. And they are indeed the ones complaining the least about visual disturbance (39%), about not having control on temperature (28%) nor enough daylight (24%), or about their managers (15%). It is easily explainable as the German legislation on office environment is very strict.
  • The temperature in offices is mainly mentioned by the Dutch (48%) and the British (53%). This can be explained by large open spaces with no control of the air conditioning near them; they are the ones who have the least this possibility: only 23% of British and 36% of Dutch employees can adjust the temperature of their work environment (European average is 38%)
  • We can wonder about the Spanish typical management style as 27% of Spanish white collar mentioned their manager as one of the top 3 most bothersome elements at work!
  • The typical space planning in UK (huge open spaces) could cause the fact that Brits are the ones complaining the most about “annoying co-workers”, with 35% of them.

Ergonomics equipment and knowledge
The possibility to adjust their direct environment (seat, light, temperature, desk height…) can alleviate bothersome elements at the workplace. Whereas almost all European white collars (88%) can easily adjust their chair height, fewer employees have the power to adjust brightness (39%), temperature (38%), and the balance between artificial and natural light (37%). It is in Germany and Netherlands that this power of adjustment over all these objects is highest: due to strict national legal laws that companies need to follow. Italy is, in contrast, the country where the possibility of adjusting all these elements is the weakest. 

A majority of European also own a network printer (61%) and a flat screen (60%). More marginally, 38% of them have in their possession a personal printer at their workplace, with a higher proportion in Germany (52%) and in France (47%). There is no clear correlation between printing more and having a personal printer.
30% of Europeans also claim to use a document carrier, with more widespread use in Spain (39%) and Italy (52%).

In all the European countries, around ¼ of white collars use a laptop at their workplace (23% on average, going from 21% in Spain to 26% in Germany). Of those who do have a laptop, half have a special support with a separate keyboard and mouse (50%, of whom 20% have a flat screen too). The lowest rate of equipment is in France, with only 37% of people having a laptop equipped with a special support whereas around half of the people in the other countries tested had one: 58% in the UK, 55% in Spain, 53% in Germany, 51% in Italy and 48% in Netherlands.

66% of Europeans using a laptop at work know that it is recommended to use a laptop support with a separate keyboard and mouse in order to maintain a good posture. It is in Netherlands (77%) and Italy (73%) that the most people know about the benefits of this equipment. In contrast, the weakest level of knowledge is in France (56%).

“Bringing keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the user (and not the other way around) is the only way to enable stress-free movements while working at the computer. Therefore, tools such as laptop support, separate keyboard and mouse are a critical part of an “ergonomically correct” workstation for laptop users. They help avoid health problems such as neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.” Benedicte Feltz, Steelcase ergonomics expert.

Access to network
Only 1/3 of European white collars are equipped with a wireless network (34%). A higher level of equipment in Spain (47%) and in the UK (39%). On the other hand it is in France that the wireless network is least present (24%).
On average, plugs are viewed as easily accessible from the workstation; 95% of European can easily access electric plugs and 82% can easily access network plugs.

The position of desks
Almost half of European white collars still have a desk badly positioned towards the window: 22% have a desk with back to the window and 21% have a desk facing the window.

Discomfort at work
The most frequent problem experienced at the workplace is visual fatigue (20% suffer from it every day - 59% at least once a week). Next come backache (12% it every day - 46% at least once a week) and neck pain (11% every day - 44% at least once a week).

Visual fatigue is experienced more in France (31% it every day - 71% at least once a week). This could be explained by the fact that French are the ones having the least a desk properly positioned perpendicular to the window with 52%, for a European average of 56%. Spain is the second country complaining the most about visual fatigue (63%): their desk is not well positioned and they are the ones spending the most time in front of their computer (83% of them spend more than 6 hours a day in front of their screen). Thanks for them they are pretty well equipped with ergo kit, if not the results may be worse.

“Beware of received ideas!” Benedicte Feltz warns “The computer tires the eyes and highlights certain visual problems but it does not cause them. The eye is subject throughout the day to varying levels of illumination, including from the computer screen. This continual demand for adaptation is the main cause of visual fatigue. The eye moves from the screen to its surroundings about 20 times a minute. Each time the iris contracts and dilates. That makes about 10,000 changes in the size of the pupil in an 8-hour working day! The muscle controlling this contraction and dilatation can become temporarily paralyzed, causing visual problems and headaches. To avoid this situation, adapt the lighting levels to the type of activity, avoid contrasts and dazzle and favour lighting with two components (indirect + direct).”

Neck pain was mainly mentioned in Italy (55% of Italians suffer from it at least once a week), in France (53%) and in Spain (53%). There is no clear correlation between the lack of ergonomic equipment and neck pain. In France, this can be explained by having less ergonomic kits (only 37% of French employees use a laptop support and separate keyboard and mouse), but not for Italy or Spain.

It is in these same 3 countries where most people suffer from backache (54% of French people, 54% of Spanish people and 51% of Italians experience these pains at least once a week). They are the ones having the least the possibility to adjust their task chair. However, this possibility is even lower in UK and they do not complain about back pain and still a large number of Italian, French and Spanish can adjust their chair. 

Whatever the discomfort tested, the Dutch are the people who suffer the least from these ailments. It looks like there are the ones complaining the least for anything; either they have perfect office environment or in generally do not complain about work!

“Researches indicate that the vast majority of people do not know how to optimally adjust their chair to suit their own height, body weight and posture. Think about that back pain and other discomforts are not just due to poor seating, but to poor use of seating. Steelcase chairs are easy and intuitive to adjust thanks to easy-to-access side levers, instruction booklets, on-site trainings, Internet and intuitive adjustments.”

Finally, 77% of European white collars spend 4 hours and more a day at work in front of their computer, going from 73% of French people to 83% of Spanish people. 

Our researches
Our research and product development programmes take a holistic approach to office ergonomics. We look at posture and movement, how people feel and work, and how the surrounding environment is influenced by colours, acoustics, temperature and air quality. Our researches also show that new technologies and work patterns have a direct effect on the way people work and use office space in today’s corporate culture. Where once employees completed most of their work behind a desk, today they move around and use space much more freely.
Steelcase is about to launch a new ergonomics conference meant to help the organisations understand the common health and comfort issues that affect us all in the workplace, and what they can do about them through workplace design. It is about how to improve ergonomics in the work environment, with a positive affect on people’s health and well-being.