A surge in musculoskeletal disorders is among the reasons behind an increase in long-term sickness absence. Marc Holl looks at why so many workers are suffering pain and how employers can support them.
Findings from Nuffield Health’s Healthier Nation Index showed over a third of adults had taken time off work due to neck or back pain, with over two-thirds of remote workers also reporting aches and pains.
Unaddressed musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) inevitably lead to further health complications, with employees more likely to be absent from work and, when they are present, limited in their performance, concentration, and physical ability.
Businesses cannot afford to ignore the topic of musculoskeletal (MSK) health in the workplace and employers risk the impact of productivity and financial losses if they do not provide relevant wellbeing offerings.
So, what can employers do to address workplace injuries that cost employers £3.5 billion a year, according to the HSE?
Impact of the pandemic
The NHS estimates that 20 million people in the UK experience an MSD. With the risk so prominent, the nation could do without additional influences increasing or exacerbating cases.
The past few years have made it difficult to avoid or manage MSK risks. The Covid-19 pandemic confined us to our homes, reducing opportunities for exercise and encouraging sedentary behaviour. It’s no surprise 72,000 individuals reported new or longstanding MSDs directly linked to or made worse during this timeframe, according to the HSE.
The long-term physical impact of Covid can also lead to chronic pain, making it increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain an active lifestyle. Instances like this weren’t helped by the long waiting times and limited availability of professional musculoskeletal treatments during the pandemic.
Cost of living
The current cost-of-living crisis is taking its toll on our health, as individuals struggle to afford the basic amenities needed to practice healthy behaviours.
A recent government study discovered over half of Brits now use less gas and electricity but for those with MSDs, this money-saving behaviour is unlikely to ease pain or discomfort. Colder conditions are proven to increase feelings of pain in those with osteoarthritis, while warmer environments are known to ease flare-ups.
Furthermore, research by Versus Arthritis has found nine in 10 MSD sufferers are worried about the cost of heating this winter and nearly a third are skipping meals or eating less to try to offset the cost of keeping their homes warm.
Other ways individuals are reconsidering outgoings include limiting fresh, organic foods in favour of more affordable alternatives, while others are freezing or cancelling gym memberships.
We all know that good nutrition and exercise are two of the key pillars of wellbeing, so it is alarming to learn how much people are sacrificing to get by.
This isn’t just about enhancing the physical flexibility of an individual’s joints and muscles. Employers should also offer more flexible work arrangements, allowing employees to complete their hours in a way that supports their wellbeing.”
Considering the intrinsic link between mental and physical health, it’s clear that work stresses – including long hours and unmanageable workloads – take their toll on MSK health.
Similarly, research reveals workplace bullying is also linked to an increase in MSK disorders – with the resulting stress, anxiety and low mood manifesting in back and neck pain. When we experience stress, our bodies become tenser and over long periods, which increases the risk of injury.
There are also risks associated with unergonomic working conditions at home or in the office, and in manual roles. Understanding these key risks allows businesses to better align their benefits and wellbeing offerings.
Increasing more than physical flexibility
Giving workers flexibility is often suggested as key to reducing work-related stress. However, this isn’t just about enhancing the physical flexibility of an individual’s joints and muscles. Employers should also offer more flexible work arrangements, allowing employees to complete their hours in a way that supports their wellbeing.
Flexible hours may reduce stress by allowing individuals to avoid busy commutes or complete the school run before work, as well as affording more opportunities to practice healthy habits like running during sunlight hours.
Responsible employers can offer health assessments – either on-site or privately – to help mitigate these challenges. With additional guidance from occupational health experts, businesses can make ergonomic improvements, as well as share advice for employees working remotely.
For those still battling the health repercussions of the pandemic, long covid rehabilitation programmes can equip individuals with an understanding of how to manage their symptoms.
Some healthcare providers may offer additional resources. For example, Nuffield Health runs a free Joint Pain Programme, which over 12 weeks teaches individuals how to self-manage joint pain with the expert guidance of a rehabilitation specialist and online advice.
Nuffield Health research revealed 46% of people say physical health issues have directly impacted their mental health. For instance, high perceived job stress has been consistently associated with upper extremity problems. And many long-term physical conditions cause people to live with pain and discomfort. The condition wears people down and begins to impact their quality of life, leading to low mood and depression.
A proactive approach needs to be taken to help employees stay physically and mentally fit. Alongside physical health benefits, businesses can look at providing access to cognitive behavioural therapy and employee assistance programmes, which allow employees to speak with mental health experts to help them manage the challenges associated with MSDs.
Finally, it’s not enough to simply implement these wellbeing strategies. Employers must communicate them regularly and clearly, including the first steps to accessing them and exactly what employees are entitled to.