Sedentary behaviours during lockdowns and home working periods have led to many employees reporting pain and difficulties with commutes that were once pain-free. Claire Glynn explains how organsations can help rebuild strength post-pandemic.
Over half of all employees (51%) experienced musculoskeletal (MSK) pain during the pandemic, which is now making it difficult for many to resume commuting. One in six (16%) say they were extremely affected, according to recent research.
Now that more employees are returning to the office, calls to physiotherapy support lines are soaring. Employees who haven’t been active in a long time are realising they can no longer walk to the station without their back hurting, or cycle to work without injuring their knee.
Others are finding that weight gain, caused by closer proximity to snacks and sitting for longer periods while working from home, has contributed to new MSK problems. For many, this has caused new pain, niggles and even injuries when using the stairs, for example.
Thankfully, employers are helping people to recover, with solutions ranging from encouraging employees to become more active again to work hardening – a series of physical conditioning sessions that get them to build activity in a controlled way, in order to prevent new injury or worsening existing ones.
Exercise to recondition joins and muscles
The importance of physical activity and exercise for reconditioning joints and muscles is not to be underestimated. Numerous studies highlight the benefits. However, problems occur when people literally attempt to run before they can walk. Going from months spent shielding inside their house to attempting a three-mile run or long cycle to work for the first time in two years can often make matters worse.
People need to be reminded that they might have lost physical conditioning if they have become less active or gained weight during lockdowns. Then, they can be encouraged to gradually rebuild strength – perhaps by going for short walks or doing a controlled exercise programme, aligned to clear goals, at their local gym or as part of a group.
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Couch to 5K is a free NHS app with links to park runs, while employee wellbeing apps such as our PAM Assist App feature a wide range of exercise videos, together with goal setting and habit tracking tools, to encourage positive behaviour change. Walking football is also a great activity for older employees to regain fitness without strain.
Build physical activity into the working day
Employees also need to be helped to stay active at work, especially if they have young children and might struggle to exercise outside of work. Everyone should be encouraged to engage in physical activity wherever possible, not least by taking regular fresh air breaks.
Staff could feel reluctant to take a short walk if it’s not their lunch break, choosing to scroll on their phone or browse the internet in-between tasks. Not only is this bad for their physical and mental health, but it can also make them less productive. If they’ve been working hard in a cognitive sense, they need to use their brain in a different way to refresh themselves.
Taking a movement break, preferably in the fresh air –be this a brisk walk, skipping, a game of boules or just doing some star jumps – will rest their brain. It will also enhance their creativity, helping them to think of solutions to problems.
Get managers to lead by example and creating a culture where productivity and creativity are valued over sitting at a desk all day.
Consider work hardening solutions
Gradually rebuilding activity levels will be enough to help most people regain muscle and joint strength and conditioning. However, if individuals are still injuring themselves while attempting to commute or move around at work, you might want to consider work hardening.
Work hardening focuses on rebuilding their strength, endurance and resilience, so they can achieve their work goals. Be this a return to commuting or certain activities. Work hardening features a series of physical conditioning sessions, based on a biopsychosocial model. This looks at the employees’ motivations and addresses any fears linked to physical activity, typically due to a past injury.
By giving individuals the tools and insights needed to understand their bodies’ reactions, you can help to rehabilitate them before the problem gets any worse. Employees should also be given the tools and approaches needed to be able to independently manage their own long-term conditions, improve their quality of life and prevent any MSK disease progression, to reduce the risk of further absence.