Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique
Two Professions: Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique
This is the second of three installments of a conversation between Joyce Stenstrom and Marian Goldberg. Joyce Stenstrom was formerly the Ergonomist for the Mayo Clinic and now works as an independent consultant. She has been an Alexander Technique student of Carol and Brian McCullough and has been taking private lessons since 1996. Marian Goldberg is an Alexander Technique teacher and the Director of the Alexander Technique Center of Washington, D.C. Teacher Training Program. The conversation took place on September 14, 1997. The first two parts of the conversation appeared in the Fall 1997 and Winter 1998 NASTAT (AmSAT) newsletters.
The conversation focuses on how ergonomics relates to and compares with the Alexander Technique as a field of study and as a profession.
Marian: You mentioned that a number of ideas and things that are currently popular and known as “ergonomic,” for example wrist rests, are not necessarily part of ergonomics. Have these misunderstandings about what is ergonomic affected ergonomists? For instance, has it affected how you deal with clients?
Joyce: In some ways it has made things obviously worse because anything that is diluted is troublesome. But in other ways it has prompted people in ergonomics to be more deliberate and to care more about professional standards. I think it may have spurred them to have more respect for what they do and develop a stronger philosophy themselves whereas otherwise they may not have. For instance, I was just going along my own way and I wouldn't get too excited about the profession as such, but now I feel that some things done in the name of ergonomics could be harmful.
There are some other aspects of the popularization that may have been helpful. Someone once said that when a discipline becomes overspecialized, uneducated cults slip in. I think that the ergonomic profession hadn't matured in many areas of the everyday workday world. With the rapid growth of computerization, the profession did not have ready answers to the many questions that began to surface. That's the way things will happen, if there is a wide gap—a lot of need—someone is going to fill it. So in a way the sudden popularity forced us to go into an important territory of the work force. I am not sure we would have gone there if we had not seen other people go into that territory.
Marian: So it was the co-opting of ergonomics that got the profession working more with the everyday work force. Have you gotten feedback from people who come to you for help who have preconceived ideas from the popular version of ergonomics?
Joyce: Yes. I think people get very confused. People say, “How should I feel?” when being set up at a work station.
Marian: That is very interesting. I've had the same experience with people who've experienced a supposedly “new and improved” version of the Alexander Technique. “What should I be feeling?” “What specific images should I be thinking of?” And of course they get tense thinking about how to do it and it's end-gaining.
Joyce: With ergonomics, the clients are accustomed to the idea of prescriptions of exactly at what angle they should have every limb of their body and that only an outsider can view these angles and say “Now you've got it right.” They don't realize that they themselves have information and insight. Having had Alexander lessons myself, I've become aware of how much this insight can be developed.
Marian: Unfortunately, a lot of people think the technique is simply about doing a little movement or picturing specific things happening. This is supposed to release whatever it is they want to release so they can move or stand according to their preconceived ideas and preconditioned feelings of what is the “freer” or “natural” or “right” way. They assume it's simply about specific instructions of things to “do” and don't know the larger picture of what inhibition is and what the means whereby is—the basics. Seeing the bigger picture and truly thinking and changing is a very different process.
Joyce: Yes, it's a curious thing. It's a statement of our prevailing notion of ways of doing things. Where some authority with information tells you, “this is it.” It is the paradigm that behavior changes through information and that someone else is the expert.
There is another interesting facet to the ergonomics profession. Some of the best people I've met in terms of what they've thought about and how they approach things have been product designers, rather than the researchers. What I've found is that product designers get quicker feedback about what doesn't work. Some of the more creative designers are people I've come to respect a lot because they're not in some ivory tower where they just imagine what the world needs or wants. I have found some designers to be very advanced thinkers.
Marian: What is it about these designers’ thinking that is different?
Joyce: I would say curiosity, playfulness, honesty. When you think about the person who started the Alexander Technique and the people who started ergonomics, those same attributes that they had—curiosity and persistence—are still the keys.
Marian: A combination of self-confidence and humility?
Joyce: Yes. You have to be willing to give up false notions. You can't just add new information to what you already believe.
Marian: That was what Alexander wrote about when he was relating his experiences in developing the technique.
Joyce: Which is why I think that you shouldn't try to dilute your message to make it more palatable. Given what I know about the Alexander Technique and physical therapy and the other medical therapies I wouldn't say that the Alexander Technique necessarily complements these therapies. Rather, I think the technique is a paradigm shift. I know it wouldn't be as popular to say this but I don't know that all of these things can actually exist together.
Marian: I think your calling it a paradigm shift is very interesting. Because although you are talking about something that may not be as popular at the moment and may happen more slowly, you are also talking about something that means real change.
Joyce: Yes. The technique is fundamentally different. It's not just “and oh, by the way, we'll do the Alexander Technique too”
Marian: Yes, in the quest for short-term appeal to these therapeutic professions, it's become clear that it is very difficult to avoid compromising the technique. Perhaps a more long-term view could encompass the possibility of the technique being an eventual means to making a fundamental change in the paradigm used by some of these therapies.
How has ergonomics been compromised in some of the efforts to sell it to the public?
Joyce: Well, there are a lot of people who have just fallen into the role of ergonomists who are trying to do the best they can. They didn't necessarily ask to become ergonomists; for instance, someone may have been working in the safety department and all of a sudden someone just appoints him/her to the position of ergonomist. So they're just struggling and trying to do the best they can.
There are others who really are on the bandwagon. They've come from other professions and they see this as something that the public wants right now. They may be out doing superficial task analyses of jobs or making very superficial recommendations to companies with a simple walk through, not realizing the complexity of the human body and the complexity of the company they are talking about. So it's very spotty and there are a lot of problems with that.
Marian: I have found the same problems with Alexander Technique group workshops and classes. It's very easy to oversimplify the fundamentals into little instructions and end up with people having very artificial ideas of the technique and how it works. A lot of people lose interest.
Joyce: Popular myths have sprung up about ergonomics: lumbar supports, wrist rests, 90 degree angles.
Marian: I've noticed that a lot of computer desks now come with wrist rests built into the desk.
Joyce: Yes, that’s a good example of something that would be a total question mark from the scientific point of view: mixed results, very meager evidence either way, and just questionable from the physiology standpoint.
Marian: What is the effect of something like wrist rests becoming so accepted and popular that they are built into work stations? You can’t take them off! What have been some of the effects of this kind of surge in the popularity of one thing that is supposedly ergonomic? For instance, people find out that it doesn’t work or that it might even lead to other problems. Or wrist rests might seemingly work for some people, but for most people it turns out that they don’t. Does that kind of situation lead to further problems with people’s perceptions of ergonomics in terms of their no longer being interested in ergonomics?
Joyce: Yes, you do get problems. I call these myths semi-ergonomics. That’s a play on words: if a semi-load [tractor-trailer] backs up to a company and delivers one thing, like a back belt or a wrist rest, or an adjustable chair, so that someone can say, “We did it; we bought ergonomics; we did what we could; now, let’s get on with other things.” And of course it doesn’t work. It just can’t work. It was illogical to try to cover the world with just this one thing. So I do hear the statement, “Well, we bought ergonomics and it didn’t work.” Well, you can’t buy ergonomics.
Marian: So a lot of people wanted that quicker, short-term solution which didn't really involve any new ways of thinking or questioning any assumptions they had. They want a quick “fix.”
Joyce: Some of the onus is on the consumer. The consumer does need to think. And this whole issue of how the profession is seen is important. For instance, an ergonomist walks into a workplace where they have tried something that was called ergonomics. A monitor has been placed too close to their eyes based on some notion that it should be placed in a certain way and they're getting headaches and they're wondering, “what’s this all about?” So people say, “we bought ergonomics and it didn’t work.”
Marian: So there’s been a backlash.
Joyce: Yes, it’s a backlash. But if ergonomics is done well there is no way it cannot work because by definition the ergonomist is always seeking feedback. If it’s really ergonomics, you think of it as a system and you wouldn’t put anything out there without monitoring its effect.
Marian: Which is exactly what Alexander was doing.
Joyce: Yes. There is another popular notion that both the ergonomics profession and the Alexander world may experience. Recent research presented in the New England Journal of Medicine takes a broad brush to education for work-related disorders and says that education doesn’t work. Unfortunately, we've defined education to be, “Here’s Joe’s spine; here's why he should lift like this” and so forth. When that doesn’t work, we say that education doesn’t work. We don’t question what we mean by education.
Marian: Alexander’s ideas of education or reeducation are very different from the simple paradigm of education that the medical profession apparently uses. People coming from the medical profession will see certain words and probably assume they mean certain things that we don’t mean by them.
Joyce: Yes, so now it's, “Oh, education doesn’t work.” And really it was a study with a very particular type of education that the New England Journal of Medicine was referring to. I think both Alexander teachers and ergonomists would say “This kind of education can’t work; we know that. Don’t study that; we've known for a long time that it doesn’t work that way.”
Marian: So if Alexander teachers were to present themselves to the medical profession, using such general terms as “education,” unless we define these words for them, and the medical profession is willing to listen to these definitions, they’ll assume a misconception immediately.
Joyce: Yes. Although you might be able to use it to your advantage because most people have seen this article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Capitalizing on that and saying to them, “We agree and we've been aware of this for 100 years. This kind of education doesn’t work. The Alexander Technique is something very different.”
The marketing dilemma for services such as the Alexander Technique and ergonomics consists of two opposing concerns. One is that marketing won’t work; the other is that it will work and the service is not ready for the demand. The first one is the more obvious and perhaps the lesser of the two problems: that the marketing efforts, including the money spent on marketing, will be in vain. Anybody who does the kind of stuff we do should read a new book called Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. It’s called a field guide to modern marketing. He explains that the biggest dilemma for people marketing services is that the model for marketing comes from product marketing and that service marketing is an entirely different animal. If you’re going to really develop a marketing plan, it can’t be based on the traditional marketing products model.
Marian: Which is what most advertising/marketing agencies are used to doing.
Joyce: Right. And it’s typically get the word out, get your name out, and tell a bunch of information about it. That’s what product marketing is all about. Whereas, the core of service marketing is the service itself. You better first look at the service. It's not that the service can get you there completely; there is a need to be known and understood. But if the service isn’t right, then that’s a big problem. The book also talks about how we tend to market, as if we’re marketing to rational people. And that's just not how people buy. For instance, if you want to market to doctors you really have to know what doctors are thinking. What their life is like, what their work is like, etc. But there is just no comparision to having a satisified customer/student in a service. Another interesting thing is that we mistakenly assume that if we tell people we’re the best, and here are all the reasons why we’re so good, that that's what sells the service. But really every potential purchaser or recommender of service has certain fears. And you have to first and foremost deal with those fears one by one and eliminate them. I would guess that one of the fears that physicians would have about the Alexander Technique is that it might be kooky; it might be just an unproven new age thing—something that their peers will criticize them for doing—that type of thing. To me the issue that you have is no different than the one I had as an ergonomic consultant: I don’t know how you can market to a whole profession. I can see developing a relationship with physicians in your community one at a time by demonstrating your worth. That takes time and trust.
© 1997 Marian Goldberg, Joyce Stenstrom