From an innovative new office space designed with health and wellbeing in mind through to training modules to help employees understand risk factors, BT Group’s approach to musculoskeletal health has prevention at its core, as Ashleigh Webber reports.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have long been the most common work-related injury, and their prevalence grew when the Covid-19 pandemic generated its prolonged period of homeworking.
Some 470,000 workers were suffering from work-related MSDs in 2020/21, according to the Health and Safety Executive – 45% of whom experienced conditions affecting their upper limbs and neck. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the rate of self-reported work-related MSDs showed a generally downward trend.
BT Group was among the many organisations concerned about the rise of MSDs in its workforce – not only among those who had reverted to working from home, but also those out in the field who undertake physically demanding work every day.
These concerns, among others, have led it to developing a programme of initiatives intended to prevent musculoskeletal injury and support those with existing conditions. It forms part of BT Group’s “promote, prevent and restore” strategy to support the five drivers of wellbeing: health, security, environment, relationships and purpose.
As Lina Chauhan, BT Group’s ergonomic, musculoskeletal and wellbeing specialist, explains: “MSK conditions are common, affecting one in five adults. They are also more common as people get older. The prevalence of MSK problems has been predicted to increase at a time when there is an increasing ageing workforce.
“Looking at our cohort, we identified potential for an increase, and subsequently observed an increase, in back and upper-limb problems for those colleagues working from home.
“For operational roles, such as our field engineers who undertake more physically demanding work, common complaints are usually back, knee and shoulder related. MSK conditions can limit work capacity, however, this is more likely to be reported in operational roles where there is more manual handling, awkward postures, etc.”
Chauhan says that a UK-wide survey by Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has shown that established poor work habits increase likelihood of MSDs in employees, but notes that there is a difference between a person’s work causing MSK problems and their job aggravating existing issues. These will require a different approach to supporting the employee.
Focus on prevention
For many years BT Group has offered employees access to free physiotherapy services, which has helped identify the areas of MSK health it needs to be aware of.
When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, BT Group focused on prevention. It launched a new display screen equipment (DSE) self-assessment tool that went beyond regulatory requirements, as it also offers broader health and wellbeing advice to ensure those who are working from home are operating in safe and healthy environments.
“Across the nation, there does appear to be an increase in MSK-related symptoms relating to DSE during the pandemic,” Chauhan tells OHW+. “People were working at workstations that had been set-up for a temporary period – which rolled into a much longer period than was initially envisaged. We made sure employees were aware of the importance of completing a DSE self-assessment for their home environment, and also signposted to physiotherapy services provided.
People were working at workstations that had been set-up for a temporary period – which rolled into a much longer period than was initially envisaged. We made sure employees were aware of the importance of completing a DSE self-assessment for their home environment.” – Lina Chauhan, BT Group
“Another factor that has fed into an increase in reported symptoms over the last couple of years is physical inactivity. Due to extended periods of essentially being housebound, our level of movement for general daily activities such as commuting, shopping, socialising reduced – or for some people stopped – leading to physical deconditioning of our bodies.”
The Better Workplace Programme
Chauhan, an advanced occupational health and musculoskeletal health physiotherapist with 15 years’ experience working in industry, works within BT Group’s health and wellbeing team and has been focusing on various other support initiatives as part of ‘The Better Workplace Programme’ (TBWP). Based on emerging health challenges and opportunities, workplace initiatives have been extended to help keep employees healthy and in work.
As part of TBWP, BT Group has designed a working environment that aims to help colleagues connect, collaborate, create and innovate. A study into the model, launched at its ‘hub’ – Three Snowhill in Birmingham – will evaluate employees’ health, wellbeing and performance.
“BT’s vision as part of TBWP is ‘bringing people together in brilliant spaces that transform the way we work’. This translates into creating transformational workplaces that support a new, more agile way of working and looking after employee health and wellbeing,” explains Chauhan.
“The new property strategy provides a good opportunity to create offices that provide a working environment that enhances health and wellbeing and work performance for colleagues. This involves optimising light, temperature, noise, and indoor air quality, together with good ergonomics and facilities, as well as supporting a more collaborative culture.”
BT Group’s health, safety and wellbeing team provided oversight, validation and specialist input into setting the design principles for TBWP to ensure that employee health and wellbeing was a major facet of workplace design.
Upskilling, assessment and support
The organisation has upskilled hundreds of volunteer wellbeing champions in MSK issues and developed a MSK health training module for staff to undertake. A research project launched in March 2022 has seen it integrate TrackActive Me, an MSK triage and self-assessment tool, into its DSE risk management approach, offering employees early access to advice and self-management of MSK conditions.
Finally, the company has recently trialled a condition management programme, based on cognitive-behavioural principles, which has aimed to support colleagues who have experienced persistent and chronic pain at an early stage.
On the wider “promote, support and restore” strategy, Chauhan says advice and support is delivered in a number of ways.
Under “promote”, all employees have access to a ‘Your Wellbeing’ portal which offers advice, information and video content to educate them about health risks. Under “support”, staff can access occupational health support and various pathways are in place to ensure people with long-term conditions get the help they need – for example, a “passport” is in place to help managers know how best to support individuals. Under “restore”, various treatment options are available, including free physiotherapy, a functional restoration programme and a prehabilitation programme to help staff prepare for surgery.
Chauhan says: “We are looking at what simple messages can be embedded into various places to help support positive health behaviour change. We are very keen on keeping the messages simple, clear and consistent, and to enable conversations about MSK health in the workplace proactively.”