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01/21/04

Workplace in motion

 

Stress in control rooms - an inescapable aspect of the job?
The working conditions in control rooms, control centres and process control rooms are frequently characterised by the fact that they involve particularly high levels of stress-inducing psychological and mental strains for the employees. Unlike during periods of ‘normal operation’, generally speaking no particularly high levels of stress are encountered, extreme levels of stress do sometimes occur however in critical operating situations, which can be triggered by technical faults, emergency situations and operations and many other factors. What can the employees and the responsible managers do to prevent such stress having a detrimental impact on health? And how, if possible, might this stress be alleviated or even avoided by structuring the way we organise work and the workplace itself? How can movement at the workplace help reduce stress?

.... Work organisation and social relations
A host of factors have been identified in recent years as stress factors, which are attributed to the way we organise work (Frese et al. 1996, Isic et al. 1999, Rau & Roßner 1994, Richter, P. 2002, Richter, G. 2002, Sust et al. 2002, Zapf et al. 1999): Undertaxing - the tasks assigned are too simple or too monotonous, such as monitoring activities, for example, where problems arise relatively quickly in terms of maintaining the necessary level of attention (vigilance)
- Overtaxing - too many assignments and/or tasks that are too complex for the abilities of the particular employee, processing copious amounts of information, which possibly, from a graphic aspect, do not correspond sufficiently with the ergonomic requirements (particularly in the case of control activities), assignments that are formulated too vaguely
-Ill-balanced physical (solely data entry) and/or mental strains (e.g. looking after ‘difficult customers’, rapid decision-making processes in the event of malfunctions in control rooms or critical operations in control centres).
Consequently, it is possible to assume that stress is more or less constantly present in the work situation. In terms of behavioural prevention, it is thus desirable to ensure conditions that allow the effects of stress to be reduced. Among other things, this implies the opportunity to ‘work off’ the physiological effects of the stress through activity such as movement.

Movement as a possible way of reducing stress?
In actual fact, however, virtually all activities in control centres and control rooms, as with all other VDU workplaces, require relatively little movement - i.e. they are performed sitting down.
From surveys relating to the perceived stresses and strains, the picture clearly emerges that sitting - as a constant working posture - is preferred to standing. If, however, the work activity entails sitting down virtually all the time, office workers increasingly perceive activities that can also be performed whilst standing as pleasant (Steiner, 1996; Krüger, 1996). These insights gleaned from office environments can be applied to the activities in control centres and control rooms.

Movement ... at VDU workplaces - not just in offices
VDU workplaces are primarily associated with office jobs. However, the advancement in modern technologies is bringing about a situation whereby VDU workplaces (as construed by the directive) are now also to be found where they would not usually be expected, e.g. in production and production-related environments, in control rooms, control centres, on large pieces of medical equipment in hospitals and clinics. At the same time, virtually all of these workplaces share the same fundamental problem - namely the lack of movement combined with high levels of stress.
The focus of attention on eliminating this lack of movement initially centres on the act of sitting itself - the keyword here being ‘dynamic sitting’. For example, sitting concepts that offer larger opening angles between the upper part of the body and thigh (raised chairs) are often recommended. Using these is clearly of benefit, but even dynamic sitting is not suitable on its own as a means of reducing stress through movement. It should thus be sufficiently clear that movement at VDU workplaces (even for reducing stress) implies more than just dynamic sitting. Moreover, there is a need to encourage ‘employees sitting in offices’ to move. This matter can be approached from various levels:
- Above all, it is important to encourage people to frequently change their posture from a sitting to a standing position - i.e. from a ‘sedentary’ posture to one of physical ‘movement’. This requires the use of height-adjustable desks, which facilitate the swift and simple change of posture. This enables the employee himself to decide which activities he wishes to perform sitting down (e.g. VDU work) or standing up (e.g. making telephone calls, conducting meetings, etc.).

Movement ... in control and monitoring activities
These activities are characterised by
- constantly high demands in terms of concentration/attention, e.g. due to plausibility checks, data synchronisation, identification and interpretation of deviating data,
- high requirements in terms of long-term and work-related memory, e.g. due to knowledge of process sequences, quality standards, process states, types of intervention, times of intervention, operating sequences, etc.
- high requirements relating to planning processes, problem solving or computation processes, where it is imperative that the interim results are correct and complete, e.g. in making decisions about the type and extent of interventions into the process sequences, coordination of persons responsible for processes
- high degree of responsibility
At the same time, these activities are often characterised by a high degree of monotony. Activities are only necessary when deviations from the standard values arise. If such deviations also signal the fact that limit values have been overshot, it is often necessary to initiate a whole series of measures without further delay. Generally speaking, visual and acoustic signals are used to indicate that limit values have been exceeded. Above all, these warning signals are meant to put the employees quickly in a state of heightened physical and mental readiness to act, thereby increasing the heart rate and triggering the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin, etc. - in other words, a typical stress situation. The activities required on the part of the employee by way of a reaction are however primarily of a cognitive nature, such as devising problem-solving strategies, updating necessary plans of action from memory, implementing these in the form of corresponding actions, etc. By contrast, the physical readiness to act largely comes to nothing, since the necessary measures hardly require any major physical exertions that would be suitable for ‘working off’ the reactions to stress. Even if the employees are bound to their workplace in critical situations, every opportunity should be utilised to indulge in physical activity in order to ‘work off’ stress. Above all, this also involves the ability to change from a sitting to a standing posture, i.e. using a person′s physical ‘posture’ for physical ‘movement’. In addition, standing permits greater scope for movement anyway, as it naturally produces greater degrees of freedom. It is worth contemplating whether the raising of the desk height could also be automated to a certain extent - for instance, by coupling the desk height adjustment with warning signals, e.g. whenever warning signals sound, the desks also automatically rise. As such, visual and acoustic signals are also repeated on the kinaesthetic level.
In summary, it is possible to state that, particularly in the case of activities that mainly involve sitting down and/or relatively monotonous tasks, movement can help reduce possible stress symptoms as well as muscle and skeletal illnesses.
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