For Want of a Nail

by Meg Evans

We often don’t realize how much our ability to do our work depends on the workplace environment, rather than simply the nature of the work itself.  For those of us who spend our days sitting at a computer, a good chair is essential, of course.  We also need adequate lighting and a monitor of reasonable size and quality.  Other factors, such as whether the work area is quiet and free from distractions, also affect our productivity and comfort level.

To make my workspace more pleasant, I keep a potted plant on top of the file cabinet and some cheerful decorations on the desk.  I use a mouse pad with a wrist rest, and I have a pair of eyeglasses prescribed specifically for the distance to the monitor.  I’m careful not to let old papers or other distracting junk pile up on top of the desk.

Admittedly, I haven’t always been as diligent about organizing the desk drawer; but I gave it a thorough cleaning last spring, around the same time that my employer issued me a new laptop computer to replace my old desktop model.  Because I don’t travel much, the laptop just sits on the desk.  I’ve been using its screen as an extra monitor, mainly when I copy and paste from an Excel spreadsheet into another document, which I do a few times a day.  The laptop sits to the right of my monitor, and a few inches behind it.

I have a routine of going out for a midday jog two or three times a week.  It’s good to get some fresh air and break up a sedentary workday with a little activity.  Last fall, when my feet started getting sore, I thought it was because I needed new running shoes.  Replacing the shoes didn’t cure the problem, however.  My feet felt better over the holidays, but they got sore again in January; and then my left knee started bothering me, too.

By February, when I sat in my desk chair, I felt pain along the back of my left thigh.  At that point, I realized that I had developed symptoms of sciatica, which is an inflammation of the sciatic nerve.  Where it had come from was a mystery, though.  I’ve never had any back problems, and my desk chair appeared to be in good condition.

I asked my husband if he thought a new ergonomic desk chair would help.  He said, “No, the chair is fine.  The problem is your posture.  I’ve noticed that you have been leaning forward when you sit at the computer.”

This news came as a surprise—I hadn’t realized that there was anything wrong with my posture.  But sure enough, when I paid more attention to it, I caught myself leaning forward several times.  To keep myself sitting up straight, I put a small throw pillow on the floor under my desk and rested my feet on it.  All of the soreness in my feet and legs soon vanished.  Evidently, my husband was correct that I had been leaning forward and putting weight on my feet, without being aware that I was doing so.

But why would my posture have changed last year?  That question puzzled me for several days before it dawned on me what had happened.  When I started using the new laptop’s screen to copy and paste from Excel, I didn’t increase the size of the Excel spreadsheet to compensate for the additional distance from my eyes.  Although I could still read it and therefore didn’t realize an adjustment was needed, the spreadsheet was just a little bit blurry; and so I had started leaning forward to see it more clearly, without conscious awareness.  Put simply, I could have avoided all of my foot and leg problems if I’d had the good sense to click ‘Zoom’ in Excel when I first got the laptop.

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost; for want of a rider the message was lost; for want of a message the battle was lost; for want of a battle the kingdom was lost; and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”  –English proverb

Many people struggle with discomfort of one sort or another in the workplace, not because they have a condition that can’t be readily accommodated, but just because they don’t have a clear idea of what accommodations they need.  Often it’s a simple matter of rearranging items in the work area or using something that is available at little or no cost.  Perhaps all they need is a built-in feature of a mainstream product, as with the accessibility setting that I needed to use in Excel.  But our culture historically hasn’t put much emphasis on teaching us to identify and correct problems in the work environment, and we may not know how to go about it.

With regard to autism, finding out what’s going on with workplace difficulties can be a challenging task.  Problems in the work environment tend to cause generalized anxiety and depression, rather than specific, observable physical symptoms.  Putting our feelings of discomfort into words can be a further obstacle, both when we’re trying to identify possible causes and when we’re seeking advice from others.  Is the work area too noisy, too bright, or too crowded?  Is the task poorly defined?  Are there too many interruptions?  What needs to be changed to make it better?

Professional service providers such as behavior analysts and job coaches have experience assessing behavior and creating plans for improvement.  Sometimes they can be helpful in pointing out issues that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.  But their main focus is on adjusting the person’s behavior to the work environment, rather than on modifying the work environment to better suit the person’s needs. Although they can suggest ways of coping with an anxiety-provoking situation, they can’t get inside a client’s head and trace the anxiety back to its root cause.  For that, we need to learn how to do our own detective work—identifying what things are essential in our environment, as well as knowing when they’re missing and what to do about it.

This is where self-advocacy programs come in.  They teach people how to recognize and address accessibility issues, thus filling the gap left by the schools’ lack of instruction on that subject.  Employers, however well-intentioned, can’t be expected to provide accommodations that they do not know are needed.  It’s the responsibility of the employee to identify where a problem exists and to find a reasonable solution to it.  When self-advocacy programs teach effective strategies for doing this, everybody wins—the employee gets a more comfortable work environment, and the employer gets a more productive worker.

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