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Wednesday, Dec 04, 2002

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No fitness zone in cyberspace

Kripa Raman

Software programmers and other computer users are losing out on health working long hours on the keyboard. What's the secret of staying fit?

SOFTWARE programmers long ago discovered, of course, that they have their own kind of stress to cope with. The glamour of a freak-y style of working in a flat hierarchy, modern styles of management and flexible working hours and methods don't take away from the fact that their work basically consists of sitting for hours in front of the computer terminal, squinting at the screen the whole day, usually in the same posture, pecking out their programmes on a keyboard that they are ill-equipped to use.

"Except for those employees who actually generate ideas, for the rest it is, after a point, assembly line work. There is not much by way of excitement for the rest of us, except the money and an addictive interest some may take in writing software code,'' says one software programmer working in an IT services company.

"Sometimes there is a comfort one takes in writing code that one is assigned to do. But after the comfort zone, there is the boredom zone.

Although programming takes a lot of logical energy out of you, there is nothing very creative about it after a point. And you are not even meeting so many people, like the marketing department does.''

Exercise can help

Some of the programmers point out that they must learn new "exercise technologies'' and certain basic skills to keep themselves working in comfort. "For example, we are pounding away at the computer keyboard almost the entire day, but we have not been taught the basic skill of typing using all the 10 fingers; that would be the least stressful way to use the keyboard.''

Instead, he says, programmers do two or four-finger typing, leaving some of them feeling arthritic and sore, with tics and twitches, after a point. "Typing is something only stenographers and secretaries learn. But it is as important to the computer programmer.''

It is worse for the IT-enabled services workers, glued as they are to the computer terminal on the one hand, and locked to the telephone on the other. "It is a bit like being a trained monkey in a cage,'' says a female employee. "You get a backache from just sitting and then eye irritation from constantly staring at the screen.''

Their employers are not quite unaware of this, what with news from what is happening to their western counterparts — where comfort demands from employees are very strident — pouring in.

Some IT-enabled services companies in India are buying up specially imported ergonomic chairs for their employees, as expensive as Rs 30,000 each.

For a software unit with 200 employees, it will mean Rs 60 lakh for the company.

Go easy on the eye

In addition, employees are now provided instructions on how to minimise vision-related problems, such as "stare into the distance after every 10 minutes of looking at the screen," and "the screen must be at a 15 degree slope from your straight line of vision.'' This allows the eye muscles to be exercised as the focus of the eye is frequently changed and reduces eye-strain.

"Young programmers come to me complaining of backaches, headaches, eye-ache or irritations, then spondylitis, or hand tremors or stiff shoulders or stiff necks. I recommend exercises for them that open and stretch out the muscles that get cramped from the way they work,'' says a medical consultant to a software company.

"We now need to learn a different technology, how to work in an `ergonomic' way,'' says a software programmer.

kripram@thehindu.co.in

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