He is sitting on a run-of-the-mill example, but it won’t be long until office chairs full of sensors warn office workers about poor posture. Professor of Information Management Hans Wortmann (67) is convinced that telecare will take off: remote care that is continuously fed data from sensor-driven devices. The coaching office chair is just one of the innovative products that he hopes will enable older employees to continue working longer.
By Riepko Buikema / Communication
He laughingly calls himself a workaholic. ‘If you have nothing to do, don’t do it here’, exhorts the sign on his cabinet. He was editor-in-chief of the journal Computers in Industry for over 20 years. This meant hours of his weekend spent reading the latest papers to prepare for the editorial meeting on a Monday morning. ‘It was a match made in heaven for me. Everyone in that world knows the journal. But I stopped because it started to become like an addiction. On the one hand I wanted to do it but on the other it took about six hours of my Sunday. I now have my weekends back.’
This constant quest for a good balance between a busy, demanding job and a healthy life are a recurring theme in our interview. Fifteen years ago, after a career at Philips, TU Eindhoven and Baan, Wortmann consciously took a job in Groningen, complete with a move to the hobby farm he had always dreamed of. ‘I wanted to try to force myself to be less of a workaholic. I wanted to be more physically active. We have horses – my wife loves them – and a few cows just for kicks.’
From these personal considerations it is only a small step to his academic work for Sprint@Work, one of the numerous projects that Wortmann is working on. Its focus is on ensuring that the working practices of employees – older ones in particular – in the northern Netherlands are sustainable. ‘In the relationship between employer and employee, health should be a more integral part of the agenda. With the key question being whether people can cope with life’s challenges.’
Together with PhD candidate Anne Bonvanie, Wortmann researched the effect on workers of pedometers, as found in Fitbits and smart watches. How do people respond to the things? Do such gadgets promote healthy behaviour? And does it take root? ‘The results show roughly that such gadgets make workers more cognitively aware of their health’, says Wortmann. ‘They think and talk about it more; focus on it more. For instance, participants with a pedometer were focused on their results for a period of time. But at a certain point the thing is consigned to the kitchen drawer, which leads to the next question, how you can ensure that health is a permanent theme.’
The researchers from Sprint@Work, a collaborative project with researchers from the UMCG, the Faculty of Economics and Business and the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, have developed a toolkit full of innovative products to help businesses create a suitable work environment for older workers. One such product is an office chair with sensors in the seat and back that can monitor the user’s posture and how long they remain seated, and that can make them aware of poor posture with a vibrating alert. Or a system that can determine whether a user is sufficiently alert from their keyboard use.
‘Our toolbox contains everything office workers need to inform them about their condition. You can also use these tools to measure whether certain patterns are at play. Is someone always tired at four o’clock, for instance? This kind of information provides valuable pointers.’ Wortmann has seen a lot of interest from business for these kinds of applications. ‘Obviously because of reducing sick leave but also because job growth makes it very important for employers to ensure that their employees remain healthy and fit for work.’
Wortmann has discovered that privacy and ethics play an important role when using new measuring devices. ‘Measuring with wearables is often seen as “Big Brother is watching you.” We noticed this during our research into the impact of wearables. If an employer gives an employee such a gadget, it gives the employee a feeling of reduced autonomy. So a warning to the employers is appropriate, even with our toolbox. It must be abundantly clear that only the employee can view his own data. In addition, an independent third party should be able to give employees tailored advice. For instance, don’t forget about posture, get some fresh air, visit an ergonomist or consider a standing desk.’
Move to a hobby farm, one might add. Laughing: ‘I’m nearly 68 and was really glad that three years ago I was given the chance to continue as professor for another five years. This work forces me to stay in top intellectual form. I’m challenged and have to move with the times. I no longer lead in all fields of course, but I can rely on a great deal of experience and my network. At the same time I am cautiously beginning to look forward to retiring when I turn 70. Then I will have more time to get out and about with my wife and give something back to our village as a volunteer. But for the time being I very much enjoy being here.’
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