Give 'em a Break

The employer may be the key to the Stretch Break software's effectiveness.

AS a bookkeeper responsible for large amounts of data entry, Sue Schwarz spent extended hours sitting in front of a computer screen, her hands busily typing away at the keyboard. After a few years on the job, Schwarz began feeling tenderness in her wrists, a tingling sensation in her lower arm, and numbness in her fingers. "It really hurt," she explained. "It was like the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone on something, except this wasn't my funny bone and I hadn't accidentally hit it on anything."

With three children to support and a lack of knowledge about the seriousness of her symptoms, Schwarz said she thought the pain was just "part of the job" and continued with her work. Before long, the pain and tingling progressed to a weakening of her grasp, causing her to accidentally drop things she was carrying. "At that point, I knew that something was really wrong, so I went to see the doctor," she said.

The doctor recommended Schwarz wear supportive wrist braces at night and during the work day and that she take frequent breaks to stretch her wrists, hands, and fingers. But after only a few days, she had resorted to wearing the brace only at night and working an entire day without a stretch break. "It wasn't that I didn't want to get better," she explained. "The brace inhibited my work during the day and I'd get so busy, I'd always forget to stop and stretch. At that time, we just didn't know how important those kind of things were."

Finally, the pain drove Schwarz back to the doctor. Medical tests indicated she had suffered nerve damage in her wrist and elbow that required surgery. After a six-week recovery, she was back on the job, but this time with a new attitude. "After all that, I knew that I had to limit the amount of time I spent on a keyboard and make myself take breaks to stretch," she said. "But it still wasn't easy to remember--I just got caught up in things."

A Continuous Reminder
Para Technologies' Stretch Break software is designed to help prevent repetitive strain injuries by intermittently reminding employees like Schwarz to take important "stretch breaks" throughout their work days. "Research shows that frequent short stretch breaks help prevent these injuries," said Arthur Saltzman, president of Para Technologies.

Designed by a team of health care professionals, the latest version of Stretch Break features animated characters that lead you through any combination of 30 stretches. The stretches focus on the parts of the body most likely to be harmed by repetitive strain injuries, including the neck, arms, back, legs, and wrists. Several stretches are specifically designed to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. Eye and breathing exercises also are featured.

Once the software is installed, you decide the length of intervals between stretch breaks, the number of stretches in each break, and several other options, including the addition of soothing music and/or standing stretches. A Stretch Break window then automatically pops up at the chosen interval and an animated character leads you through the desired number of stretches. If you're in the middle of something important, Stretch Break allows you to delay stretching by one minute, five minutes, or to cancel the break entirely. After completing the stretches, you're given an ErgoReminder that includes additional tips on preventing repetitive strain injuries and the length of time until your next stretch break.

The program also features an ErgoHints button complete with a workstation set-up guide, tips on body and equipment positioning, and information on the importance of lighting. To minimize use of the mouse and unnecessary keyboard strokes, this section includes numerous keyboard shortcuts. In addition to the stretches, Saltzman said users find the ErgoHints and ErgoReminder features particularly valuable. "Our surveys of users indicate that they become more ergonomically aware after using Stretch Break," he said.

Good Intentions
Based on Schwarz's experience, it's apparent even employees with the best of intentions may need an occasional reminder--for this purpose, Stretch Break is extremely effective. However, after having the program on my computer for a week, I'm of the impression it might take the suffering of a serious repetitive strain injury to garnish the level of commitment necessary to benefit from the stretches.

It seemed as though as soon as I got immersed in an important project, the Stretch Break reminder popped up. Not wanting to lose my train of thought, I found myself opting for the one-minute delay, then the five-minute delay, and then canceling the break all together. This trend repeated all week.

Logically, I realize I could especially benefit from the Stretch Break exercises at those moments when my body is stiff in concentration. But, because I had the option to cancel every break, it was too easy to ignore the reminders and stay buried in my work. I think the program would be more effective if it somehow prohibited other computer applications from working until the stretches were completed. Or, because employers would probably foot the bill for the software, maybe it should include a component that monitors and reports on employee usage.

Saltzman agrees the employer may be key in the program's effectiveness. "We have found that when employers encourage its use, their employees are willing to try it," he said.

The program is easy to use and designed with the best of intentions. But your employees will have to do more than try it to reap the intended benefits.

This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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