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Ana Veciana-Suarez: It’s time to change the way we work

Like too many people I know, I spend most of my work hours sitting in a comfy office chair that I leave only for bathroom breaks or when I remind myself to move. After decades of peering into a computer screen day after day, my posture is horrible, my hips often hurt, and my back sometimes feels as stiff as a board of plywood.

Every once in a while, like now, I straighten my shoulders and push back my neck, self-conscious of my slump. Within minutes, though, I fall right back into the slouch. Unfortunately, the stoop-shoulder sag has become my default position.

So when I saw a picture of Emma, the work colleague of the future, I winced. I recognized parts of me in her hunched back and her bloodshot eyes. I bet lots of office drones did, too, when the video of Emma made the rounds on the internet.

Emma is a life-sized dummy created by researchers and 3D model specialists. She is, in many ways, the worst example of how an unhealthy workspace marks us physically with "a permanently bent back caused by sitting for hours in a bad position, varicose veins from poor blood flow, a rotund stomach caused by a sedentary position, dry and red eyes from long hours staring at a computer screen and other health conditions." Oh, and to add insult to injury, her pallid complexion gives off some bad vibes as well.

In short, she's the cautionary tale of how we will look in 20 years if we don't improve our chairs, our desks, our office culture, the very way we work. Standing desks, anyone? Walking meetings? Stand-up-and-move breaks every 30 minutes?

As part of the Work Colleague of the Future report sponsored by an office furniture company, experts in ergonomics, occupational health and professional well-being interviewed more than 3,000 employees about their health issues and concerns to come up with Emma. While the surveyed workers toiled in France, Germany and the United Kingdom, I think most, if not all, of their survey findings can be applied to U.S. work life.

Those health issues are disturbingly familiar. Fifty percent reported strained eyes, 49 percent sore backs, 48 percent headaches, 45 percent stiff neck, 30 percent sore wrists – I could go on with the list, but my morning is growing bleaker by the keystroke. Besides, I think anyone who's worked in an office understands all too well the hardships of a desk job, particularly since our sit-on-our-bum workdays only exacerbate our already sedentary lifestyles.

Not surprisingly, researchers urge a change in the tools and the culture of our modern workplace, including more frequent breaks and more ergonomic office furniture. "Unless we make radical changes to our working lives, such as moving more, addressing our posture at our desks, taking regular walking breaks, or considering improving our workstation setup," behavioral futurist William Higham told the press, "our offices are going to make us very sick. As a result, workers in the future could suffer health problems as bad as those we thought we'd left behind in the Industrial Revolution."

I really don't need a report to know the consequences of sitting too much and not moving enough. I'm already zealous about going to the gym, have invested in an ergonomic chair and keyboard, and am trying extra hard to remember to blink-blink-blink while I'm writing (per my ophthalmologist's suggestion). I even keep dry-eye drops in my top drawer and purse. But what if my "adaptations" are nothing more than minor concessions, like coal miners tying a kerchief over their noses to ward off lung disease?

At the risk of sounding like Chicken Little – a practice that seems to increase with age – I'm sounding the alarm with my children, all of whom have desk jobs. A future full of hunchback bleary-eyed Emmas is straight out depressing.

(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)

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