There’s a dangerous sentiment among consultants—one that’s costing health, productivity, and livelihoods.
It’s the attitude that if a client asks you to jump, your only response should be “How high?” That if it’s at all possible for someone to work 80 hours a week, they should. And that in competitive fields, talented professionals are unworthy, and they need to prove themselves worthy at any cost.
These sentiments lead to people hunching over laptops during hours-long layovers, sitting in terrible desk chairs for years on end, and, when taken to the extreme, working themselves so hard that it is no longer physically possible to do a desk job. In fact, there were 47,280 cases of musculoskeletal disorders, also known as ergonomic injury, that resulted in time away from the office in 2019.
Before it’s too late, it’s time to reconsider your working conditions and the attitudes behind them. This is where ergonomic consulting can help. Ergonomic principles are invaluable in the high-pressure consulting business. While driven consultants are at risk for workplace injuries, the good news is that following ergonomic principles can prevent these injuries.
What Is Ergonomic Consulting?
Ergonomic consultants come into a workplace and assess the ergonomics of employees’ work setups. Are their legs bent at a 90-degree angle when seated on their desk chair? Do they have lumbar support? Do they have to tilt their heads up or down to look into their computer monitor? Do their wrists have to bend to type at the keyboard? Are they taking breaks throughout the day? Ergonomic consulting asks these questions and more to improve an individual’s health at work.
At SVI, we believe that ergonomics is so important that we offer ergonomic consulting as a benefit for our employees. At an employee’s request, a consultant will come into their workplace, identify all the things that they need to do to improve their ergonomics, get them set up, and come back to check on them later. Ergonomic consulting can’t cure injuries, but it can prevent them.
Why Do Consultants Need to Pay Attention to Ergonomic Principles?
About 18 years ago, I worked at a consulting firm with an employee who was highly intelligent, driven, and dedicated to her job. Unfortunately, she suffered a severe case of imposter syndrome. She felt like she was never doing enough and that she had to do more and more to prove herself.
This woman’s imposter syndrome led to intense problems. She worked long hours at her computer, constantly typing and reading, focused so singularly on her work that she neglected her health. Eventually, the overwork caught up with her, and she ended up physically unable to move her arms. It wasn’t just carpal tunnel syndrome: It was intense pain through her neck, shoulders, and arms, such that her doctors told her she had to quit typing altogether.
Because long hours at a keyboard is most of a consultant’s job, this employee couldn’t work for a year or more. She experienced nerve damage that had to be treated with steroids, and she ended up in draining legal proceedings in pursuit of workers’ compensation.
In the years after this woman’s experience, I’ve seen four or five consultants go through the same thing.
Why is that? Let’s start with working conditions. When my teams go on site to consult a client, they typically don’t provide optimal working conditions. We have been directed to a dark basement with the wrong size of tables and no plugs for laptops, where we have to hunch in an awkward position. Unfortunately, this isn’t atypical for on-site consultants.
Another factor is that consulting companies tend to be very competitive. A lot of this stems from the MBA programs from which consultants graduate. Many MBA grads carry a fear mindset with them: They fear that they don’t know what they’re doing, so they work relentlessly to make up for it. If the client says at 4:45 p.m., “I need this deliverable by 8 a.m.,” the employee feels they have to prove that they can do it. That’s how they see their path to promotion.
As a consultant myself, I developed pain in my fingers and hands a few years ago. Thankfully, I was aware of the problem early enough that I hired an ergonomic consultant to help me figure out the specific changes I needed to make. Those changes, plus the advice of my doctor and the latest science, enabled me to cure all the problems. Now I keep up those best practices of ergonomic design so that the problems don’t recur, and I can continue to work diligently at my job.
How Can Office Injuries Be Prevented?
Office injuries can potentially affect anybody who doesn’t have a balanced view of ergonomics. The good news is that there are ways to prevent these injuries. Please note that the best advice—tailored to your body and your situation—will come from an ergonomics specialist, but here are a few high-level ideas to help you get started:
- Set up your office correctly. Set up your monitor and camera so that you need to sit up straight. Ensure your chair offers good lumbar support.
- Take breaks. I recommend aiming to get up and walk around for five to 10 minutes every hour at a minimum.
- Be aware of and attentive to your posture and early signs of pain. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. If you notice your wrists, back, or neck are hurting, for example, take immediate action to remediate the situation.
- Prioritize a work culture that doesn’t force you to constantly work. Feeling the need to constantly work is unsustainable. The more pressure there is to work nonstop, the harder it is to notice the beginnings of an injury.
As a consultant, you may be traveling less than you did before the pandemic, but you’re likely still traveling. That means working in airplanes, coffee shops, barrooms, and hotel rooms—all places that don’t have the personalized setup of your home office and in which it’s difficult to implement these ergonomics best practices. In these settings, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up sitting in an uncomfortable position that will leave you feeling sore and unmotivated to jump back into your regular routine when you return home.
But even when you’re on the road, there are steps you can take to adjust your positioning and prevent soreness and injuries. For one example, when I am conducting on-site consulting, I insist on having six reams of paper on which to place my laptop and an adjustable chair that allows me to sit with proper posture. I travel with a separate keyboard and mouse to help with positioning, too. Since following these ergonomic principles, my pain has been completely cured, and I have had no additional problems.
While burning the midnight oil with a crick in your neck may land you an account now, that’s a shortsighted view of things. You don’t have to give up working hard or even putting in long hours at a job you’re passionate about; following ergonomic principles means you can work harder and longer, and you can do it for years on end. Ergonomic principles allow you to work sustainably, supporting a long-term career, but you have to be holistic and take a cultural approach. If your company cares about your well-being overall, they will make sure that you’re paying attention to ergonomic principles and support you in your efforts toward long-term health.
If you’re interested in working at SVI and utilizing the many benefits we offer, please visit siliconvalleyinsight.com/careers to learn more.