Expert Interview: Jamie Tessler, MS, MPH

October 02 2018 / by Mari Ryan

Jamie Tessler is an occupational ergonomist, lecturer, and educator. She is an adjunct professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, where she teaches occupational and environmental health to students in the public health and professional degree programs. At Northeastern University, Jamie is busy working to modernize and upgrade the occupational and environmental health and safety training programs and platforms. She is a frequent guest lecturer on occupational ergonomics in area schools of public health.

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics related to employee wellbeing. My guest today is Jamie Tessler. Jamie, welcome, I’m so delighted to have you here today.

Jamie Tessler: Mari, thank you so much for the invitation.

Mari Ryan: We’re going to explore the topic of ergonomics, and I get the sense that not everybody fully understands what ergonomics is. So, when we use the word “ergonomics,” what are we really talking about?

Jamie Tessler: What we are talking about, Mari, is a system and a system with social and technical and structural aspects to it, and ergonomics examines the way humans interact with that system. You can look at it from the lens of engineering, and you can look at it from the lens of occupational psychology, kinesthesiology, human evolution essentially. While ergonomics is often used in little soundbites to talk about a device, a piece of equipment, posture, what we are looking at is an entire system of human work. Who we are in that system, and how our physiological, psychological, and intellectual strengths and weaknesses as humans fit in. The goals are fairly straightforward; human wellbeing, worker wellbeing, and success of the socio-technical system.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous definition – I love it, it’s so broad in so many ways, but at the heart of it, it’s all about employee wellbeing for the person.

Jamie Tessler: Exactly. That’s how I think about it. I think about it in terms of employee wellbeing; an employer or system manager would think about how do we optimize productivity for success of our industrial operation or business, or enterprise. I look at it entirely as how can we design work to fit people with our cognitive and physiological strengths and limits. Ultimately, if work is designed within human limits, and humans can thrive within that system, then it’s a win-win – that’s the theory. In practice, work is designed based on a wide variety of needs and demands, humans respond to those demands with all different kinds of results. Ergonomics seeks to seal that fit so that workers can feel good physically, be challenged, get rewarded for their efforts, be able to meet the demands, see them learn new things without causing muscular-skeletal, psychological or other types of [indecipherable - 0:03:54.0]

Mari Ryan: Wonderful. Given that definition, why should employers care about ergonomics?

Jamie Tessler: Ergonomics can be the bottom line, because it impacts productivity, wellbeing, and functionality at work. If an employee is physically uncomfortable, it’s going to impact every aspect of their performance. If an employee has a workload that exceeds the demands that most people are capable of, it’s going to create flaws in the system. People often think of ergonomics as preventing physical injury at work, but I think it’s important to understand that the psychological aspects of how work is organized is an integral part of ergonomics.

I work a lot on the muscular-skeletal part, but it’s incredibly clear that they are integrated. With so much work, especially in the computer era, being so deeply computerized, people are glued to screens, I think it’s more important than ever - because of the trends we are seeing, because of the overwhelming sedentary nature of work in this country in so many different industries, and all the deleterious health effects that result from sedentary work, I think it is as important as ever and will be extremely important going forward.

Mari Ryan: I would think so. As you talk about it in the context of this broader definition, we think about the elements that impact quality of products that are being produced, quality of customer service, it really does have direct impact to the operations of a business.

Jamie Tessler: Absolutely. Not only in terms of physical well-being and health costs and absenteeism, but in terms of morale, teamwork, connectivity between people in a work environment. If you look at the social aspects of ergonomics, we are talking about all the things that you address in your work, the cord of relationships between coworker, supervisor, employee interactions, how employees are honored and rewarded and recognized, and also, very importantly, what extent you get to use all your skills and your assets, and to build on those, and to what extent is work a place where you grow and you learn and you thrive, versus a place where you cower, or you shrink, or you recede.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. I’m curious, what are you seeing as the trends as we categorize it as office ergonomics, and what is the science that is emerging in this field?

Jamie Tessler: It’s fascinating to see the tension between the trends and the fads that are often embedded within the trends, and what the science is saying. We all know that sitting all day. Now we know – sitting all day, and sitting all week, and sitting during your working life is not good for you. The challenge is that while we are all interacting through our computers, and computer work by nature is static. So, one of the big trends that we see is the trend toward standing work stations, or active work stations. The challenge is how do we design movement, physical movement, within the work day that is organized around static computer interactions. How do you get more people interactions? How do you get physical activity that is embedded, that is within the nature of the design?

One thing you need to remember is that we have the same bodies as hunter-gatherers, who walked and crouched and ran, were in their bodies moving all day. That evolution has not caught up with the kind of work that a lot of us are doing today. So, this is the challenge, and in response there’s been the fads and somethings that are great. While the jury is out on the effectiveness of certain types of interventions, a couple things are clear; constantly changing your posture throughout the workday – let’s say you are in an office environment, working at a computer – is positive. Holding every single meeting that you can, [indecipherable - 0:08:49.7] and standing, is positive.

Taking that on a practical level, I’ve done evaluations in offices where everybody had a printer right next to their desk, and all they had to do is reach, as opposed to that printer being fifteen feet down the hallway, and so every time they got up to get that page, there is built-in movement. There could be held walking; campuses where people have to travel from location to location, these all add value in terms of building movement, visual variety, interaction. We used to have to get up and talk to each other more often when we didn’t have computers. We couldn’t instant message, or Skype Business, or send an email. So, what are that we could building in more teamwork.

So, one trend we see is these more open office environments. They’ve also other challenges because of the fact that people need to be able to concentrate, and not be hearing and listening to all of the other buzz and conversations and music on headphones around them. The challenge is, how do you build a movement, how do you design so that your posture has to change, is forced to change? There was a trend of bicycle workstations, and treadmill workstations, and some health advocates felt this was a good idea, but they didn’t talk to the ergonomists. That reduces typing accuracy, it reduces productivity, and it kind of doesn’t recognize the fact that your forearms have to be static if you are typing for a work environment at a computer workstation.

The other trend, too, is towards not relying exclusively on the hands for keying, and for more voice activation. The problem with that is it creates noise, which means you need to be in a cubicle or private workstation. What I’m going to do here is name all the tensions and the conflicts, but what employers need to be thinking about is how am I going to build in interaction, movement, standing, and walking into the work day? What part of the task can be broken down so a single individual is not doing data entry, eight hours a day, forty hours a week? How can we diversify the tasks so that we give certain parts of the body a break, and that we move more? These are hot topics on the table.

Mari Ryan: It sounds like that is exactly when they need to call you in to help out with these kinds of situations. So, Jamie, if our audience wants to learn a little bit more about you, or the work that you are doing, how can they get in touch with you?

Jamie Tessler: Please check out my LinkedIn page and I would be happy to respond to some inquiries. I would also advise viewers to be extremely careful about the source of your ergonomics advice. Make sure that you are working with someone who is credentialed ergonomics. I’d like to advise listeners and viewers of this video to be very mindful of gadgets and gimmicks, and to make sure that the people who are providing assistance and advice to you have an understanding of the prevention of work-related muscular-skeletal disorders, and some insight about the trade-offs in all these office design decisions, because there are trade-offs. There isn’t a perfect algorithm and the jury is still out.

What is very positive and very exciting is the awareness of human interaction, human movement, human engagement, is an essential part of work design, whether you are inputting medical records forty hours a week, or whether you are a principal in a creative organization, all of these things matter, and that employees know a lot about what is physically comfortable and not comfortable, and their feedback and input can help drive the design process.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous. Thank you so much for being my guest today, Jamie. I appreciate the work you do and know how important it is for workplaces to create healthy, thriving workplaces. Thanks, Jamie, for being my guest.

Jamie Tessler: Thank you so much, Mari. Have a great day.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, hr

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.