Personal assistants often suffer at work, both psychologically and physically. Stress, back pain, neck aches, tingling in the arms and hands are common symptoms among you.


‘The risks of office work

Let’s have a short glance at the scientific literature to understand why your body and mind ring the alarm bell.

Three major hazards for office workers are high workloads, unrealistic deadlines, and lack of control over the organization of work, the workload or the working time. Example of other hazards include bad communication with or lack of support from managers or colleagues, conflicting demands of home, work and family, and an insufficient work-life balance.

In the office itself, bad ergonomics (e.g., wrongly adjusted chair, screen too high or too far, too much of the mouse) are obvious risks, as well as "multi-tasking" (doing simultaneously different tasks having different postural demands), the way you respond to stress, and the way you schedule the breaks throughout the day.

If you read the two previous paragraphs once more you will notice that as a PA, you barely have any influence on many of the listed risks. How can you organize your work well when the phone rings at random moments, when unexpected visitors burst into your room and when you constantly have to shield your boss during his long working days? How can you influence your workload? How can you improve your relationships with difficult clients and colleagues when there is already so much to do that you barely take the time to go for lunch every day? How can you avoid typing and calling simultaneously when writing down an appointment taken over the phone? This is what the literature calls "lack of control"…

Why prevention?

In the next paragraphs I will show you that there is actually a lot of room for improvement. My first remark is the following: you have no other choice than to improve the situation, because even if you are not the one causing the problem, you are the one who bears its consequences. Nobody will ever share your back pain or your anxiety.

I know a young lady who had such pain in the upper body that she went on invalidity. At home, even simple household tasks hurt a lot. Her husband has a burn-out because of his high workload combined with the home situation. The children are out of control since she was declared invalid. At work, everybody has of course forgotten about her and her contribution to the company’s success…

In the EU, 40% of all workers aged 40-55 report that work affects their health, even if not always as dramatically as in the case above.

Societal evolutions have changed the nature of work, but your body constitution has remained the same over the last many thousands years. Our body is hence not meant to take up all the constraints that the modern world puts on us: you have to draw borders and work within them if you want to enjoy your pension fully.

With time, you will see that feeling, understanding and respecting your limits will actually increase your efficiency and help you meet your job demands better.

Protect yourself…

When facing a hazard, you can protect yourself in 3 different ways:

•eliminate the issue

•reduce the issue, or replace it by a less problematic one

•protect yourself.

The experience shows that educating people in the recognition of risks helps a lot. Next time that the phone will ring while your boss bursts into your office from one door while a colleagues does the same from another door, you will recognize a risk, whereas before it would have been "business as usual". Identifying the risk is the first step of risk management.

Here are a few practical tips.

Colleagues, clients and managers take the habits that you let them take. Why would they not request your help at all times if you have shown them that it was fine for you to do so? Once more, kindly and respectfully draw your limits: say when you cannot, but always offer a reasonable alternative. Time management will help you get back in control without frustrating others.

Research has shown that data typists who take regular short breaks have a higher productivity and do less mistakes than those who work long hours in a row. You should therefore take all opportunities to stand and get away from your computer: place your printer in another room, visit your next door colleagues instead of calling or mailing them, and stand when having a telephone conversation. Nobody should remain seated for more than 20 minutes in a row! Furthermore, never skip a lunch break, and don’t eat in front of your screen.

Remember also that your boss is highly dependent on you: his/her interest (and legal duty) is to keep you healthy. Kindly request that a qualified ergonomist comes by, assesses your workstation and advises you on the best tools for you. Also request a telephone hands-free kit so that you don’t need to hold the phone between shoulder and ear while typing (the resulting neck ache radiating down until between the spine and the shoulder blade is called "the secretaries’ pain"…).

As a posture and movement therapist, I would advise you on the best postures and gestures to avoid overloading your body. I would also show you how you can "productively relax it". For example: Try to stand up from your chair with a straight vertical back, i.e. just pushing on your legs. You cannot. This is why so many of you take support on their armrests or on their desks, hence accumulating tension in their neck. Now, try this: pull your chair away from your desk, roll your whole spine forward starting in the neck (your head comes between your knees), feel that this already lifts your buttocks from the chair, push on your legs, and then only straighten up from the hips upwards, first the lower back and then the middle and upper back. Not only you just stood up without effort and without using your arms and neck muscles, but also you stretched all your back muscles when bending forward.

This is a typical example of how doing things differently can radically change the load that you accumulate throughout the day, without wasting any time.

Seek professional help

You therefore exert a profession at risk, and hence face daily psychological, physical and social hazards. A number of them are generated by others, but you can often protect yourself even when you cannot influence the hazard directly.

Remember how much you are worth, not only to your company but also to your beloved ones and to yourself, and request external advice. Psychologists may help you manage stress and take some distance with your work. Ergonomists help you with tools, environment and work organization.

Posture and movement therapists teach you how to better understand, feel and use your muscles and joints throughout all your daily activities.

Olivier Girard is a mechanical engineer who later became an ergonomist and a posture and movement therapist. Most of his clients are office workers to whom he teaches how to prevent or manage muscle and joint pains, whether they are work- or age-related. ... (Read More)

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