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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Naomi Abrams.
Naomi is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and injury prevention consultant who focuses on helping companies get the most out of their employees through programs with strong ROI and strong internal longevity. She has helped corporations around the globe reduce workplace injuries by an average of 75 percent, resulting in a one-in-eight return on investment. Her easy to follow, no-nonsense style is meant to give management and owners the tools they need to succeed and the rationale to prove their purpose.
As an occupational therapist, who specializes in treating injured employees under workers compensation, she saw all the things that employers did incorrectly to keep employees at work, keep employees safe, and deal with them once injured. As a therapist, Naomi demanded the most from her patients to keep them moving in the right direction. As a consultant, she demands no less from her clients.
Naomi, welcome. I’m so excited to have you join me today.
Naomi Abrams: Thanks for having me, Mari. Good to see you.
Mari Ryan: Nice to see you as well. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are suddenly working from home and not in their normal workplaces. We know that employers spend a lot of time and money designing workplaces to look after employee wellbeing and safety, and yet, suddenly, there are those employees sitting on their couch and sitting at their dining room table. Now that so many people are working at home, what is the impact from a health and safety perspective?
Naomi Abrams: I think there are a couple of things happening here. One is that, no, people have not set up their home offices. It’s funny, people would go home and play on their computers and they would always have their computers at home, but now everything is focusing in and saying okay, now I have to work all the time at this computer that I’m at my desk. I’m not at my desk, I’m on my couch, I’m on my bed, and then my kids are also using the computer.
So, we’ve got a lot of back/neck/shoulder pains and strains happening these days, and it’s all being exacerbated by the general stress of COVID-19. It’s all being piled on and then when you add the workplace requirements, what am I going to do, how am I going to get through this with the kids yelling in the background, the dog yelping in the background, it’s all coming up into the shoulders and into the back, into the neck. It’s going to come back and get us later, I think.
Mari Ryan: Clearly it’s not an ideal scenario since we literally were launched into this with very little preparation. When you are working with a client and they are moving employees to a home-based work situation, how do they think about designing that space for the employee at home in the same way they would have designed the space in the workplace?
Naomi Abrams: Unfortunately, they don’t think it through very far. Even the companies that decided to go to telework before COVID hit, they started looking at the real estate benefits and said, okay, I can reduce the size of my office, or they looked at the amount of travel their employees had and said, hey, I can get people off the roads, this is so great, they’ll work from home.
Unfortunately, people didn’t think ahead. All they said was we’ll get a laptop, we’ll give them laptops, and they and go to work from home. Some companies looked ahead and said, we’d better give them a keyboard and a mouse and a monitor. Some companies said, let’s give them a one-sheet that says how to set up your office. Unfortunately, even companies that started to do it before COVID didn’t think it through very well and they need to, especially since I think when COVID moves on, however that happens, telework is not going to go away. It was the trend prior to COVID. Companies have to stop and think how much responsibility are they going to take for a home work station since they are still responsible for those employees.
It’s going to be an interesting balance because they also can’t say, hey employee, we know this is your private residence, but we’re going to insist that you set it up our way. There’s that balance that has to happen. The employees and employers are going to have to come to some sort of agreement. The employee has to take some responsibility. It’s their home. It’s their place. To some extent I think employers have a stumbling block in front of them in the sense of the employees have to welcome them in to say, we want this set up correctly and we’re willing to do what you want us to do. Laptops were never meant to be used on the lap. Laptops were never meant to be used as primary computer devices. They are just not designed correctly. They are designed so you have to hunch into them. So it will be interesting to see where it goes if we start getting better laptops. Do we get devices that pop in half and raise up on their own, projectable keyboards, and things like that. It should be interesting, but we’re not there yet.
Mari Ryan: No, we’re certainly not. What is the advice that you would give to employers when we’re talking about the elements of wellbeing and health and safety, that they should consider when they are either planning for this next phase of working from home? We have parents whose children are not going back to school until who knows when. It’s not like this is going to end on some arbitrary date in the spring. What would you suggest that employers do and take responsibility for, creating the best work environment, the physical work environment for their people at home?
Naomi Abrams: I think first and foremost, acknowledge that laptops are just portable CPUs. It’s not as simple as just handing that out. They are going to have to take a step back and say, what other equipment are we going to ship over? Are we going to give everyone a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse – which really is what’s necessary to set up a good seated at a desk workstation, or standing at a desk workstation. You need something that separates the monitor and the keyboard.
That’s first and foremost. The second is education. Employers cannot rely on the internet to be providing proper education to their employees. It’s just not … it’s like, here, have a whole bunch of information, and then they wonder why employees start saying, well, I need this and I need this. They have to take control of the education and put out the information their employees need for how their employees work. Do their employees spend a lot of time on the phone? Do they spend a lot of time on virtual conferences? Do they need some sort of other microphone, other camera, that’s going to make life a little easier. They have to do a technological evaluation to understand what kind of education is necessary.
Then, they have to actually ask the employees to take care of themselves. It’s interesting to me that employers will often push information out, or expect them to find information, but at no point do they say, we really want you to take care of yourself and we’re going to do the best we can to support that. I think in environments were people are working by themselves in their homes or with their families there, the employers have to make that request and say it’s important to them, it’s important to the employer that we create some kind of partnership here to ensure that everyone stays healthy.
Mari Ryan: Let’s talk about that in a little bit more detail. What is the role that the individual employee have in all of this?
Naomi Abrams: I think the individual employee needs to request help. Many companies already have in place experts or information that allow the employee to get the information and the expertise and the help that they need, but many times the employees say, this is my home so I guess this is just the way it’s supposed to be, or I have so much stress maybe that’s why everything hurts so much.
A lot of employers already have employees’ stress management assistance, or in the wellness world they’ve got nutritionists you can talk to, they’ve got psychologists, psychologists, social workers you can talk to. It’s amazing to me when the employee leaves the workplace they divorce themselves from some of those pieces of assistance.
I think from the employee’s standpoint you have to acknowledge that you have to take care of yourself. It doesn’t have to be combative, it doesn’t have to be adversarial in any way shape or form, it’s just, I really would like to take care of myself. What resources are still available to me now that I am working from home? A lot of those resources, as we know, even in the wellness program they are available. It’s just that you have to ask for them.
I think also employees have to acknowledge that they are just as important as their families when they are working at the computer. Yes, their kids have to work on the computer, especially as you said, who knows when school is coming back. You could be on the West Coast, East Coast, wherever, and who knows when that is going to happen. There has to be an acknowledgment that my kid has to be safe when they are at the computer, I have to be safe when I’m at the computer, so I have to actually take the time to set things up for myself.
Mari Ryan: What about the challenges that some people face in that they just don’t live in a place where they have room to work? How do we support those individuals?
Naomi Abrams: You and I both travel. We know that sometimes you end up in a hotel room, or somewhere that you just don’t have a great set up. The thing is you can always have a good set up, whether you can have a great set up is questionable. Even when I go and work in hotels, the chairs, the desks, they are not built for me; I’m five feet tall, c’mon. I can barely reach the floor. There are ways of setting yourself up, but you have to take those five minutes to problem solve how to do that. If they have a couch and they are working on the couch, they can set themselves up properly on the couch using pillows, using three-ring binders to lift the laptop up.
Let’s say you are living in a studio or something where there just isn’t a place to set up a table. Well then, work on the couch but then put support behind your back so you are not sitting like a turtle and put some pillows on your lap so you are not leaning down and trying to see that screen. Even better, these days we all have TVs that seem to do everything including showing us television. Casts to the television that you can set up and work on the laptop and be looking straight ahead.
There are so many things out there, but you have to take a moment to do it. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to just grab our devices and start working away, when in reality you have to stop and say, no, I know myself, I know I’m not going to be here for just two minutes, I’m probably going to be here for an hour. Let me take a moment and set myself up. The main thing to know is don’t be a turtle, if at all possible. Set yourself up so you are not a turtle. Something behind your back so you are sitting upright. The world comes to you; you don’t go to the world. It’s the best way to understand how to set yourself up properly.
Mari Ryan: That’s a great suggestion. I can remember, and I’ve been working from home for almost 20 years, and when I got some first long-term assignments where I knew I was going to be working from home, the first thing I did was I bought a very expensive chair. Even by today’s standards, it’s still a very expensive chair. I just knew if I was going to be sitting here for long periods of time, and since then I’ve added a lumbar support and other things that I needed to be able to be really comfortable. So, great suggestions.
Naomi Abrams: Mari, you bring that interesting things up because that is one of the questions I get a lot. Now that I am working from home what chair should I buy? Interestingly enough, the one way I know that a chair is a good one is that you shouldn’t need to add a lumbar cushion. So, you bought a really expensive chair -- and don’t get me wrong, I get that question all the time -- the best chair should be one that fits you and supports you without anything getting added to it because you spent a lot of money on it. You should make sure it fits you. I think one of the biggest things I worry about with COVID, and I know it sounds totally weird, when I am sending someone to buy a chair, I’d like them to sit in it first.
Mari Ryan: Of course, yeah.
Naomi Abrams: How do you do that when the stores are closed? It has to fit you. It has to actually work for you. Everyone asked me what’s the best chair out there? It’s the one that fits you, it’s the one that works. That is something that people have actually been asking a lot when they do take responsibility. Then they say, I’d better go out and get a chair. I’m like, yes, you should, but I can’t tell you which one to get because you can’t go and sit in them.
Mari Ryan: It’s really a Catch-22. As we start to look beyond the COVID pandemic, is there a balance between managing risk and having some of your workforce continuing to work from home? How do employers think about that risk management versus the reality of the world we are living in right now?
Naomi Abrams: I think there is definitely a way for them to manage that risk. They still have to pay attention to their employees. The back pains, and neck pains, things like that. Those still can be considered workers compensation so that they have to pay attention. At the same time, if they are taking control of the education and actually providing correct education, if they are considering having that might help, whether that is saying, all right, we are going to send everyone on monitor, or say everyone gets a foot rest, or say you can request these three things; a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor from us if you need them.
They have to take a look at their own budgeting, their own way of managing employees, and say, I’m going to control not only my risk, but what it is I am putting out there. On the flip side, they have to ask their employees to be responsible. Part of that includes the education, it includes acknowledging the education, so part of the way that risk is averted is to say we’ve given you this knowledge, we’ve given you access to this expertise, acknowledged that, please. At least than as an employer, I’m taking time to say, I’m giving you this, have you received it? If the employee does not say yes, I’ve received it, that is a risk.
I think that the employer has to think ahead and say how am I going to set up the structure so that I know that my employee has taken the time to take care of themselves. How do I access that, and how do I ensure that, and once I’ve done that, I’ve done the best I can. Then they have to take a look at their work practices because if they are going to have meetings, for example I was thinking about this morning when we were preparing to go on here, if they are going to have meetings online that are going to take three hours and they are going to assess whether the person is participating by whether they can see their face in the camera, well, three hours is a long time to be sitting and if your camera only sees you if you are sitting here, then they are saying three hours you have to sit here. That is not a healthy thing. You have to get up and move at least every half-hour, 45 minutes, so what is that camera dictating to us now? I have to take a look and say, you know what? We’re going to say after every half-hour we are going to take a one minute break and that is just now going to become a policy for online meetings. We are trying to take care of you. It’s up to you if you decide not to stand up, it’s up to you if you decide not to stretch, or whatnot, but we are going to set up our own policies to ensure that we are taking care of our employees. It’s the best way that they can ensure their own risk.
Mari Ryan: Good suggestions, both to look after the employee, but also for the employee to take some responsibility for that as well. Great suggestions.
If our audience wants to learn more about you and the work you are doing, Naomi, where can they find you?
Naomi Abrams: They can find me at www.workinjuryfree.com. It’s a good way to reach us, we have a contact form on there, we have some resources for people. My books are on there. If you want to know how to set up your own office, you can always get my book, Why is My Office a Pain in My [blank]? It works for home offices too.
Mari Ryan: That’s great, such wonderful resources. Thank you for sharing all that and for being here for this discussion today. As always, it’s great to spend time with you, Naomi.
Naomi Abrams: It’s great to talk to you.
Mari Ryan: Thanks.
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