An Ergonomics Approach to Improving Wellbeing and Productivity at Work

By Stephen Bowden – Chartered Ergonomist

Stephen Bowden Chartered Ergonomist

After reading the title of this blog post you may be asking yourself, ‘What has Ergonomics go to do with Wellbeing?’ This question may be followed by ‘What is Ergonomics?’, but maybe the most important question should be ‘How does Ergonomics improve Productivity?’

In a globalised economy with ever more competitive business environments, organisations need to find the edge to improve productivity. In this context, this blog post looks at the relationship between ergonomics, wellbeing and productivity.


Ergonomics, sometimes referred to as Human Factors (HF), is defined by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) as an ‘integrated knowledge from the human sciences to match jobs, systems, products and environments to the physical and mental abilities and limitations of people. In doing so it seeks to safeguard safety, health and wellbeing whilst optimising efficiency and performance’.

Ergonomics focuses on the Human Factor placing the individual at the centre of the design by looking to understand their social, psychological and physical attributes.

Examples of social attributes include:

  • Organisational culture, employee participation, knowledge sharing.

Examples of psychological attributes include:

  • Workload, control and description, repetitiveness, ambiguity.

Examples of physical attributes include:

  •  Musculoskeletal disorders e.g. lower back pain, temperature, lighting, poor office acoustics.

The hidden financial costs that affect productivity

The cost of sickness absence to UK employers in 2013 was £28.8 billion (PwC Research, 2013). Business leaders however should be aware that the cost of sickness absence is only the tip of the iceberg and is dwarfed by the silent hidden cost of presenteesim which is be quoted by Main et al. (2005) as being seven times the cost of absenteeism.

Presenteesim is most commonly described as the act of employees attending work when ill. A better description is ‘Reduced productivity at work due to health problems or other events that distract one from full productivity (Hummer et al., Whitehouse,2005). The definition by Hummer et al (2005) takes into account all potential causes of presenteesim, including those that are not caused by disease and are under the control of senior managers, design and build companies and architects for example.

One of the main causes of presenteeism is distractions that come in physical, psychological and social forms which reduces the ability of the person to concentrate on and complete the tasks at hand. Distractions can be caused but are not limited to any one of combination of the following sources:

  • Physical discomfort e.g. lower back pain
  • Culture of the organisation
  • Management style
  • Unwanted nearby conversations
  • Poor thermal or air quality
  • Poor lighting
  • Reward system

To help reduce the risk of presenteeism, during the design of working environments designers should ensure that both the human element (Human Factors) and technical design are considered without bias to either side. McClelland and Suri (2005) pointed out that if human issues are not articulated in an easy to understand manageable form, they are likely to be pushed aside when the pressure of costs, schedules and technical issue come to bear.

Interestingly, Harris (2016) documented that 55 per cent of business costs relate to staff salaries with the remaining 45 per cent comprising of business costs (30 per cent) and property (15 per cent). A reduction in presenteeism which affects productivity by 15 per cent could for example cover property costs.

An example of the human issues being pushed to one side is the recent focus on the open plan style of office design with a focus on collaboration. The push for open plan collaborative designs has taken hold despite evidence from the scientific literature that these designs do not support employee wellbeing and productivity.  The trend of the open plan office has taken place alongside increasing the density of offices to save money in rent, service charge etc without full consideration of how these decisions will impact employee wellbeing and productivity. The increase in density is reflected in the UK where office density has increased from 11.8m2 per person in 2009 to 10.9m2 per person in 2013 (Bedford et al., 2013).

To quote Oxenburgh et al. (2004): ‘Eventually all work comes down to people, even those whose work is seemingly remote from people, for example, accountants will find that they need to look more closely at the people side of the business-people are an asset, not just a cost’.

Health and Wellbeing

As discussed earlier, ergonomics/HF is concerned with the designing of working environments and systems that place the individual at the centre of the design by looking to understand their social, psychological and physical attributes.

An individual’s subjective wellbeing emerges from physical, psychological, social and environmental factors that affect our view of ourselves in the context of the world around us. These factors form the basis of individuals’ perception of their wellbeing.

Wellbeing is defined as: ‘The balance point between and individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced’ (Dodge et al., 2012), as illustrated in figure 1 below.

The see-saw concept described by Dodge et al. (2012) illustrates the need for individuals to return to a set-point for their well-being to be in equilibrium. An individual will have positive subjective wellbeing when they have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet psychological, social and physical challenges. When an individual has more challenges than resources e.g. lower back pain (physical), unrealistic workload, lack of control within job role (psychological), poor relationship with line manager (social), the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing, and visa versa. When the individual meets a challenge, the see-saw of challenges and resources moves into a state of imbalance as the individual is forced to adapt his or her resources to meet that particular challenge.

Resources and challenges will change every day and a short period of imbalance will not have a large impact on an individual’s subjective wellbeing and productivity. Negative wellbeing and lost productivity however can start to occur if challenges outweigh resources or visa versa for long periods of time i.e. weeks or months. A decline in wellbeing and productivity can potentially lead to ill health, presenteeism, absenteeism and even exit from the organisation.

Resources and challenges balance

Figure 1: ‘The balance point between and individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced’ (Dodge et al., 2012)


Wellbeing and productivity can be improved through an ergonomics approach to the design of working environments. Focus should be placed on the human at the centre of the design and a maintaining a balance between human requirements (physical, social, psychological) and technical side of the design.

Physical, social, psychological distractions from the environment can increase the risk of presenteesim which research shows can be up to seven times the cost of absenteeism.


  • Bedford, D., Harris, R., King, A., Hawkeswood, A. (2013) Occupier Density Study September 2013 London: BCO
  • Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., and Sanders, L. (2012) The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3): 222–235. DOI:10.5502/ijw.v2i.
  • Harris, R. (2016) The Proportion of Underlying Business Costs Accounted for by Real Estate . London: BCO.
  • Main, C. et al . (2005) Validity of the HSE stress tool: an investigation within four organizations by the Corporate Health and Performance Group; Occupational Medicine , 55(3): 208–214.
  • McClelland, I. and Suri, J.F. (2005) Evaluation of Human Work , 3rd edn. London: Routledge.
  • Oxenburgh, M., Marlo, P.S.P. and Oxenburgh, A. (2004) Increasing Productivity and Profit Through Health and Safety. The Financial Returns from a Safe Working Environment . 2nd edn. London: CRC Press
  • PwC Research (2013) Rising sickness bill is costing UK business £29bn a year – July. Available at:


Stephen Bowden BSc (Hons) C.ErgHF MIEHF EurErg. Chartered Ergonomist. 

Stephen is experienced in Ergonomics and Human Factors ensuring an integrated approach between humans, machines and work systems within industrial, office, manufacturing, defense and aerospace. 

Stephen has a specialist interest in ergonomics approach to wellbeing and the association between Ergonomics, wellbeing and productivity.  

For more information visit 

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