Give 'em a Break
The employer may be the key to the Stretch Break software's effectiveness.
- By Valerie Weadock
- Mar 01, 2004
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.
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
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.