Bad Habits While Working at a Computer
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Today we have a “security rock star” as a guest: Stefano Pancari.
Stefano, why did I introduce you like that? What do you do?

That’s what they call me. I have been involved in health and safety for 20 years, and today I am not only the president of a consulting and training company on these topics, Sfera Ingegneria, but also the editorial director of the webzine ‘Rock’n’Safe’ because I try to bring the passion for the values of Safety into companies. But it hasn’t always been like this. When I started, I thought I could really bring improvements to people’s life. However, the entrepreneurs I met were not always sensitive to these issues (nor were the workers) and rather than being a bureaucratic consultant who enforces rules, I would have done something else.

​​Until, during a U2 concert, in a moment of pathos, I had a sort of flash. Because, beyond the big screen, Bono Vox’s eccentricity, and these giant stages, behind the valuable music there is a strong message. If we think about it, rock has always been a vehicle for great cultural changes, and so, going back to what I was doing, I said to myself: “Who willingly wants to get hurt? Health and safety are values for each of us, even if in our daily lives we behave dangerously. What is the reason? Probably, the rocker who professes these themes presents them in an uninteresting way.” From that day on, I started studying communication, leadership, and personal growth because I am firmly convinced that if communicated differently, health and safety can resonate with people, both emotionally and rationally. This has led us to collaborate with over 300 companies and train more than 7000 people. Now, when I deal with consulting and training, I do it while having fun, and there is nothing more beautiful than that!

And you are also Develer consultants!

Yes, I am the prevention and protection officer and it is a pleasure for me. A company like Develer simply has to be accompanied because it has a truly fantastic vision. I make this clear to the whole team, without any flattery. There is sincere care and attention towards the person that should be professed in many other realities, where this is lacking.

Of course, by focusing on well-being in the sense of health and safety, I try to bring my contribution to what the company is already doing.

Thank you very much for the compliments! Let’s focus now on security as far as the IT sector is concerned. What should developers do? How concerned are we about health and safety in our environments?

I have met many people in the IT field. We have an underlying problem that is manageable: we always think that safety is confined to inherently dangerous activities, like construction sites. Actually, everything we do in life carries risks, even though, of course, working at a height of 50 meters is different from working at a computer. Unfortunately, even those who work at a so-called ‘video display terminal’ can experience complications if we don’t use the proper precautions. We apply these not just because we have to comply with rules set by the law or the company: we need to practice common sense to take care of ourselves.

A person’s posture at the computer is closely connected to their state of health, and since our brain deceives us, we often perceive ourselves as comfortable in positions that actually strain our musculoskeletal system in such a way that the persistence of that habit can lead to significant complications. Many people suffer from back pain, and when we have problems with our spine, a whole range of activities, from sports to playing with our children, becomes limited. When you find yourself in this condition, and you think back to why you feel bad today, it comes to mind that something more correct could have been done.

However, health and safety are primarily about prevention, and this is where we need to focus our attention. Let me give you an example: not long ago, I worked from my living room, lying on a chair that was not exactly designed for work. Since I kept the mouse far away, very close to the desk, I rubbed my forearm on the desk all day. The next morning, I woke up with an elbow as big as my knee because the continuous rubbing of the joint on the work surface caused bursitis, an inflammation that led to muscle swelling and fluid buildup. Besides not being able to move my arm, I then had to undergo a series of injections which ruined the next two weeks. All this for a stupid action.

When we talk about health, we’re not just talking about physical health, but especially in the IT sector, the main issue stems from our psychological health. There is actually a law that says the employer must take care of the physical and mental well-being of people: and on this topic, a whole new world opens up, especially since smart working is becoming increasingly widespread.

So what are the things that absolutely must not be done?

First of all, we have to talk about the environment in which we work. If it is a company, it is organised by the company itself, but if we are at home, we have to have a little care, not assuming that problems only happen to others.

The regulation states that we must have a light-colored and matte desk. This is because we do have a great ocular system, but, just like cameras, we must pay close attention to our lenses. Every hour, we focus dozens of times, which strains the eyeball. If we used dark work surfaces, our focusing effort would be excessive. In the medium term – and even in just a few working days – this leads to a series of complications that initially manifest as eye irritation, but have more serious long-term consequences.

The need for a matte surface is due to the lighting of the environment we are in, which is a friend until we make it an enemy. This happens with a shiny surface because light reflections inevitably bounce off. We might not notice it because we are always looking at the monitor, but we have continuous irradiation on the eyeball, which can also cause complications.

When talking about light sources – natural ones like windows, or artificial ones like any lamp – we must ensure that they are never within our visual cone. This means they should not be behind the monitor, as this creates light and dark effects, nor behind our shoulders, as this creates reflection effects.

So, to summarize, you need to have a compliant, light-colored, and matte desk, oriented in such a way that the light sources are lateral.

Let me debunk a myth: desk lamps are not a good thing. This is because, especially in the late afternoon or winter hours, if we have the work area illuminated, we forget about everything else and risk finding ourselves in a dark room with strong lighting on the desk. Again, transitioning from viewing very bright things to dark spaces strains the eyes significantly.

And look, I’m a rocker, I like to live life and savor it well, these are not whims: unfortunately, there are many people with vision or musculoskeletal system problems, and it’s a shame to cry over spilled milk.

So these are the minimum precautions regarding the physical aspect, but I imagine everyone will also be interested in talking about the psychological aspect.

Yes, before moving on to that aspect, a question about monitors. Are they all up to standard now, or are there some that should be absolutely avoided?

Well, back when I started working, with cathode ray tube monitors, we had dials or buttons that allowed us to adjust contrast, brightness, etc. Today, we only discuss monitor sizes because we have very high video quality. The brightness level is adjusted by the user, and in this case, we also need to proportion it to the light in the environment, just like any smartphone does automatically: if we are outside in bright light, the brightness increases, and when we are indoors, the brightness decreases. Therefore, it’s not advisable to have a blinding light source.

And what about screen breaks: should they be taken or not? How frequently?

Here we enter the more psychological field: the answer is yes, the law states that, given a standard continuous 8-hour workday, a person should take a break of fifteen minutes every two hours. Additionally, the regulation specifies that the break is not a coffee break, but simply a temporary interruption of our interaction with the computer. It has always been this way, but now that we work more from home and spend hours in front of the computer, this might not always be productive and healthy, because at a certain point we start working on autopilot. 

Not only the fatigue of the eyeball but also mental fatigue can damage our nerves.

Let’s take care of our nervous system because working with our brain is a bit like being a luthier, we need to know how to properly tune the strings. An instrument, to sound good, must have its strings taut, and this is adrenaline: stress itself is a good thing, it keeps us on our toes. But if we have a work rhythm where we never take a break, and we tighten the strings too much, eventually they will snap, and the instrument won’t work anymore: this is the phenomenon of burnout. Athletes know this well: if one trains at maximum intensity every day, there will come a day when our body and muscles stop responding because we have pushed our organism into hyper-stress. The same exact thing happens on a mental level: maybe we’re on point and don’t realize it, but in the long run, there will come a moment when we collapse, and for a while, we won’t be able to perform adequately, possibly when we have a deadline approaching.

Therefore, the recommendation, to ensure the best possible performance and our psychological balance, is to intelligently manage breaks: giving yourself a bit of space is necessary to catch your breath. We must be the ones, not the law, to be aware of when it’s the right moment to take that break. Remember that it takes 7 minutes to reach a good level of concentration: this means that if I frequently interrupt myself, it will take another 7 minutes to return to a new standard of concentration. To perform well, when you are in a planning phase, exclude external interactions like mobile notifications, emails, and chats for a set period of time, because if you work truly focused during that time, you will save a lot of time.

Imagine, instead, when you are at work and “multitasking”: interacting with colleagues, responding to emails, chats, video calls, and being distracted by your phone. That 40-minute task sometimes stretches into hours, whereas by staying focused on what we are doing, we optimize our time, achieve results, and maybe even end the day having worked a bit less because our goal is reached.

Stefano, let me ask you two quick questions. First: you talked about burnout. Are there any indicators that can help us recognize it’s coming and allow us to reverse the trend, or does it arrive suddenly and it’s the end?
Second: we talked about breaks and sports. Can diet also play a role?

I’ll answer the first one. There are always warning signs, but we tend to ignore or underestimate them. What are they? There is an increase in tension, so we should pay attention to how we relate to others, and how we communicate because if we start noticing that we are a bit more irritable, or we have internal dialogue that gets stuck more often on things, that’s definitely an indicator. If our mind never escapes the work loop, that’s another indicator; if everything else seems smaller compared to what we have to do, that’s another indicator.

I want to clarify something: there are moments when we choose to dedicate ourselves entirely to work because we might have a crucial deadline, but we determine the timing. When do we instead drift towards burnout? When we have no limit to the peak of stress.

In these cases, our only remedy must be engaging in activities that have nothing to do with work. Therefore, in your sector, it would be necessary to disconnect completely from technology and perhaps dedicate yourself to nature, switch completely. Unfortunately, with smartphones, we are always connected, and this is not productive for the person or the organization, because in the long run, being constantly connected to work does not benefit anyone.

As far as nutrition is concerned, although I am not a nutritionist, having a sedentary lifestyle undoubtedly leads to an incredible reduction in metabolism. Many of us have step counters and can see how the opportunities to burn calories diminish. We need to nourish our bodies with substances that provide ‘good’ energy: it is often recommended to eat nuts, but that doesn’t mean having a salad bowl full of almonds and walnuts, because they are very high in calories. However, for example, shelled almonds are one of the best energizers because they provide a lot of energy in a very short time, being quickly absorbed by our body.

I have noticed that on some days of smart working, I barely reached 1500-2000 steps when we know that the minimum required to stay healthy is the famous 10,000 steps a day. Monitoring these aspects makes us realize how beneficial it could be to take a break and go outside, perhaps taking the stairs – even small habits can improve our lifestyle – and taking a walk. It would be better to have a dedicated slot for physical exercise because what I’ve mentioned so far is just to keep us somewhat in shape. If we want to stay fully fit, we should include at least a 40-minute exercise slot in our daily schedule.

You almost convinced me to remove Slack from my phone! 

A big change for me was turning off notifications on my phone because I realized I couldn’t concentrate on things. I’ll tell you one more thing: it’s a big myth that we are multitasking. Our brain can only think sequentially, not in parallel. This means that there are many people – especially women, who are more inclined due to the brain’s structure – who can switch from one thing to another incredibly quickly. How to discover it? Start reading a book and put on a movie you like: it’s not true that you are reading and watching the movie at the same time; you will go from reading a few lines to watching a scene, and when you have read that page, you will not have listened to anything from the movie. At most, you will return to the movie if you hear something that attracts you. This teaches us that the brain switches from one topic to another. Therefore, when we are working, reading a notification means that at that moment we are taking attention away from what we are doing to focus on something else. And I remind you that it will take another 7 minutes to get back to full concentration.

Time slots are not a predetermined thing; we need to know when we are in full flow and can finish something, and when we can instead detach and dedicate ourselves to something trivial.

We have talked about smart working. We are increasingly using headphones or earphones, on Zoom or Meet or any other platform. Sometimes we can’t take it anymore, the headphones are heavy, the volume is too high or too low… Can you give us some advice?

You are touching on a very delicate topic because we usually think of pollution as an environmental one, but, especially in large urban centers, the biggest pollution is noise pollution.

The major issue we encounter is stress on the auditory system. I’ll try to simplify it a bit: what we see externally is just the receptor, the auricle, and through the auditory canal, the sound wave impacts a very light membrane called the eardrum. The eardrum starts to vibrate, transferring these vibrations to an entire internal system, and we’ll end the anatomy lesson here.

Constantly bombarding our auditory system with sounds, especially with headphones (of any size, including earphones), leads to incredible stress on our eardrums. Imagine this membrane as if it were a boat sail, constantly hammered by the wind. Fortunately, we don’t have eardrum perforations because that happens at peaks above 120db, but by vibrating continuously, it loses its elasticity and stiffens. This means it will no longer move like a boat sail but more like a heavy cloth: with the same wind hitting it, it will move less, and we will hear less. I have translated into simple words what hearing loss is, which we determine in two ways. Based on volume: if we are on a video call, we just need to perceive what people are saying, there is no need to keep the volume at maximum, and based on exposure time: from a technical standpoint, there is a mathematical formula that interpolates between exposure levels and exposure times.

The recommendation is to listen to things at a medium level, not at a maximum. If we really need to use headphones, it is even more important to schedule our breaks to avoid constantly bombarding our hearing, giving it some silence.

Of course, if during the break we put on a Black Sabbath record at full volume, we’re back to square one!

To explain how much we suffer from noise pollution, I could give you the example of those of us who live in the city and spend a weekend in the countryside: they will notice that at night, the deep silence almost bothers them because our auditory system easily adapts to noise. And this is coming from someone who, by attending many concerts, hasn’t been kind to his hearing: I suffer from tinnitus, that constant ringing you carry with you for life because it is incurable. This is because when you are used to certain high volumes, they don’t bother you. It’s the classic issue of risk perception: if I take someone who isn’t used to large events, as soon as the sound systems start, they even feel discomfort, which doesn’t happen to someone who is used to it. It’s the same in a nightclub: remember when we came home and our ears were ringing? Because we had assaulted our hearing for hours with sound impacts around 100 decibels or more. What happens is that when that impact is no longer present, the eardrum continues to vibrate by inertia: this is the whistling sound we continue to hear.

So, it’s better to use extra-aural devices rather than intra-aural ones and keep a medium volume, sufficient for listening – always ask yourself, ‘Is it really necessary to listen at this volume, or could I turn it down a bit?’ – and, lastly, take breaks.

Even if it’s necessary to use headphones for work, impose on yourself to use the computer’s native audio whenever possible.

Are there studies on the maximum duration of video calls? Has anyone looked into this?

There are well-established European studies that tell us that the loss of performance in organizations due to stress is immense, but where does this stress come from? Often, it derives precisely from the organization of work, so in some way, it’s as if the company is committing harakiri on its own performance.

It’s not true that productivity is measured daily, and above all, filling the day with video calls is not productive. We Italians love meetings, and the Anglo-Saxons mock us for this because we are always discussing, but when do we move to action? Often, even meetings of just 15 minutes would be enough to reach the objective.

So, especially online, lengthy meetings do not benefit anyone, neither the individual nor the organization.

Moreover, filling our agenda with back-to-back video calls is not productive because if we don’t have time to sort out our thoughts from the previous meeting, I wonder what it was for.

Intentionally scheduling breaks between meetings allows us to avoid being glued to the PC with headphones, thus improving our hearing condition, changing our posture, and reducing stress levels. Lastly, having fewer meetings allows us to better organize our work.

One last question: is there any advice you want to give us before we go?

I have plenty of advice. I do what I do because I positively express dissent towards a widespread status quo, where people behave as if their health and life are something taken for granted; many times we think we have a permanent contract with life and that things happen only to others, while things don’t happen until the day they do. But then that day is too late.

So going full throttle cannot be the right thing to do if it means crashing into a wall, both physically and metaphorically. It’s better to try to get the most out of our lives because as far as we know, we only have one, rather than worsening it or abruptly ending it with stupid actions. When you look at the reason why someone can no longer move well or has been seriously hurt, at the root there are almost always stupid behaviors. There are no stupid people, but we do stupid things.

Reflecting on these aspects and loving ourselves a bit more, I think, is the best recommendation to continue having fun, giving our best, and attending as many concerts as possible!

Here you can listen to the podcast episode