Occupational health and safety of software
At the advent of the industrial revolution people didn’t even consider the worker when setting up shop, often with catastrophic results. Nobody contests that the impact of the field of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has vastly improved working conditions the whole world over. Many countries now take working conditions very seriously and others are slowly catching up.
This good fight is far from being over, OHS offices armed with legislation and regulation still must keep companies in check, the temptation of saving a buck is often overwhelming to managers and company owners.
Common working conditions have gone through a fundamental shift in the past two decades; more of us now have a digital work environment. This has been celebrated as a shift towards better and safer working conditions. True to the OHS form, there has been a lot of research on the physical setup around our computers, how we sit/design of mouse and keyboard etc, which has helped many workers use computers without damaging their bodies. (Again, this is an ongoing struggle — I’m looking at you, reading this crouched over your screen. Sit up!)
But what is happening on-screen?
I would like to maintain that the environment that many people work in on-screen is a threat to their health. The software that many people are being told to use as a part of their job is frankly unacceptable and we are not paying enough attention to that aspect of the work environment.
How is software a threat to health you may wonder?
We spend a lot of time at work and there we are tasked with doing various things in order to fulfill our duties that we are hired for. When we solve these tasks we feel good and accomplished. When we are unable to solve them or when doing so is a constant struggle, it makes us feel overwhelmed and ignorant. This produces a lot of stress, especially where people understand that the impact of them not being to able to finish their task is a direct influence on others (for example in healthcare). Over long periods of time this chips at our self-esteem, we start to feel first frustrated and angry, then powerless and helpless. Burn-out and depression become a risk.
When we set up the digital environment that our employees will work in, we need to take seriously how that environment sets them up for success rather than failure. Far too often decisions on which software to buy are made without taking this into consideration. The people that buy the software are not the end-users (for example when enterprise software is bought) and therefore the consideration of how the software supports the users needs is ignored over discussions of price, implementation and management dashboards.
When I have been involved in meetings with enterprise software vendors, I have managed to catch them completely off guard when I ask them to demonstrate what the software looks like, let alone how it will support basic tasks that the employees are supposed to solve. Why? They are not used to getting that question.
I write this as a plea to all of you involved in these high stakes, high amount decision: Pose these questions, bring the end-users needs to the table before you make the final decision. It’s respectful of the end-users and good for business.
Further than that, I would like to call to action the OHS people. Indeed the physical work environment is very important and needs our attention, but we need your support here too. Is there a way to create standards, to measure impact, to support the workers here as you have done in so many fields?