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Chris Bell

Preventing and accommodating musculoskeletal disorders within your workforce



Musculoskeletal disorders are unfortunately prevalent in the adult population and can hugely impact their quality of life. These disorders can cause back pain, autoimmune diseases, pain in knee joints and muscle injuries. Whether an employee has a previous injury, or they are in particular risk of musculoskeletal disorders, it is of great importance for employers to consider how their staff might be affected by such health issues. Not only is it vital to treat and care for these injuries, but also to put in place preventative measures to maintain a healthy workforce.

In 2016/17, it was discovered by the HSE (Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain), that 507,000 workers suffered from a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (new or long-standing)

Employers can implement many changes to both care for and prevent musculoskeletal disorders among their employees. Read on the find out what can be done to help.

How can you help employees with musculoskeletal disorders?

As so many adults are affected by musculoskeletal disorders, it is an area that employers must give a lot of consideration to. It is important to ask the questions, what can employers do to make work more enjoyable for these employees? And potentially reduce the number of sick days taken?

Working from home

Reduced productivity and efficiency in the workplace can be a direct result of musculoskeletal disorders and general. We refer to it as Presenteeism when employees attend their jobs despite not feeling fully fit to work. 39% of public sector workers and 26% of private sector workers have experienced this in their own workplace according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics). Presenteeism often occurs because an employee is afraid to call in sick out of fear of being penalised by their employer. One way to address this for sufferers of musculoskeletal disorders is to provide them with the option to work from home.

Using public transport and getting in and out of vehicles is yet another difficulty faced by those with musculoskeletal disorders. Because of this, the commute to work can become a huge obstacle. Instead, employees can stay at home where they may feel more comfortable and get on with their work — reducing lost productivity time that may occur if they come into work.

Attending regular rehabilitation or physiotherapy appointments can be a necessity for sufferers, therefore having the flexibility of working from home is often one of the best solutions. Perhaps their rehabilitation centre is closer to home than it is for work, and less time may be spent getting to and from their sessions than if they were travelling from the company.

Specialist equipment

Specialist equipment can completely transform an employee’s working environment and might will positively impact their condition. Asking employees if they require specialist equipment at work is another way to improve their comfort and reduce the risk of absenteeism, or further injuries. Examples of these include:

  • Sitting or standing desks — Giving employees the option of a sitting or standing desk is one way to help. For some, standing upright may be more comfortable than sitting in the same position for a prolonged period.
  • Ergonomic keyboard — These are designed to reduce muscle strain and should be offered to employees. For sufferers of musculoskeletal disorders, tasks that may be easy for some such as using a keyboard, mouse or pen can be difficult for someone who suffers with repetitive strain injury for example. Those with arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome may also struggle with these types of tasks.
  • Lifting assistance — Where lifting is required as part of the job, offering assistance with heavy lifting can be helpful. A trolley for example can help employees transport objects that they might be struggling with. This may relieve muscle pain for example and can help prevent further injury and strain.
  • Other equipment — By talking to employees, company bosses can find out about other types of specialist equipment that could be helpful — tailored to each person and their needs.

Complementary therapy

As well as medication and other forms of pain relief, many employees might benefit from complementary therapy. Offering alternative therapies in the workplace could play a big part in both preventing and accommodating disorders. It could be something that employers could fund or offer to the full workforce.

As added stress can enhance the pain of those suffering from musculoskeletal disorders it is important to monitor levels of anxiety in the workplace. There is a clear link between musculoskeletal disorders, mental health and work loss. In fact, depression is four times more common amongst people in persistent pain compared to those without pain. Ensuring that all employees have someone to talk to if they are feeling under pressure is important and encouraging positive energy throughout the workforce with social events can also help. If employees are feeling extra stress, it could be worth looking into hiring extra staff or referring workers for therapy for example.

When it comes to helping with stress induced musculoskeletal pain, yoga has been found to be a greatly successful technique. There are many ways that employers could encourage their workers to participate in this exercise — through organised classes within break times or after work, or through funding the classes. Although expensive, it’s possible that this extra exercise will help manage pain levels and reduce sick days.

Other methods of support

There are plenty of other things you can do to retain staff with musculoskeletal disorders and make sure they feel supported in the workplace, these include:

  • Promote good communication inside and outside of the workplace — Employers should take time to learn about each of their employees and their issues. This way, appropriate changes can be made at work which can encourage workers to come to their boss with problems and suggestions.
  • Recognising and being aware of the conditions early on — If an employee has recently been diagnosed with a musculoskeletal issue, they should be encouraged to tell their employer as soon as possible. This allows for the company to intervene early and get the measures in place that will encourage the employee to return to work as soon as they can.
  • Creating a ‘return-to-work’ programme — For those who have sustained an injury, creating a phased return could be beneficial for them. This reduces the risk of them taking a long period of sick leave through appropriate adjustments in their working environment.

How can you prevent these disorders in the workplace?

It is of great importance to accommodate and care for staff with musculoskeletal disorders, but as well as this, measures should be put in place to prevent these disorders in the first place or stop them from worsening.

8.9 million working days were lost to WRMSDs in the UK in 2016/17 — accounting for 35% of all working days lost. In total, 507,000 workers suffered from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) (new or long-standing) during this period. Because of this, Understandably, some industries have higher than average rates of musculoskeletal disorders because of the nature of the job; these are construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing, and transportation and storage. Research also found that WRMSDs are more prevalent in males.

Certain work patterns can be associated with WRMSDs that employees should be aware of, these include:

  • Fixed or constrained body positions.
  • The repletion of the same movements.
  • Forced concentration on small parts of the body such as the hands or the wrist.
  • Working without sufficient recovery between movements.

If employers are aware of potential musculoskeletal disorder triggers in the workplace, preventative measures should be able to be taken. These measures mainly involve being aware of the potential triggers of musculoskeletal disorders in each organisation. Employers should encourage their staff to take breaks or move away from their workstations frequently (at least once every hour).

Unfortunately, the number of people with musculoskeletal disorders in the UK workforce is still prominent, however it is gradually decreasing. Therefore, employers must take action to help employees through specialist equipment, the option of working from home, and potentially funding complementary therapy. They should also recognise if their employees are at risk of WRMSDs and take appropriate preventative measures.

 

The impact musculoskeletal disorders have on employment

Musculoskeletal disorders affect a quarter of the adult population in the UK.  Based on data gathered in 2016/17, 45% of musculoskeletal disorders are to do with the upper limbs or neck, 38% to do with the back, and 17% involve the lower limbs. Out of sufferers within working age (16-64), 59.4% are employed. There is a downward trend of musculoskeletal disorders per 100,000 from 2001 to 2017, but it’s still an issue that must be considered.

Attending work naturally becomes a struggle for those affected — resulting in periods of absenteeism. In fact, 30 million working days were lost due to these conditions in 2016 which can be costly for employers. Based on calculations that consider the average UK salary and a working day of 7.5 hours, an individual sick day can cost an employer £107.85 if the worker receives full sick pay. There is also the cost of work being covered, perhaps this is by another employee who then can’t do their own work.

 

Sources

http://www.hse.gov.uk/Statistics/causdis/musculoskeletal/msd.pdf

https://recruitingtimes.org/opinions/20062/cost-sick-days/

https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/ltc-op-eolc/ltc-eolc/our-work-on-long-term-conditions/si-areas/musculoskeletal/

State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017 report — Arthritis Research UK

https://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/business_in_the_community_musculoskeletal_toolkit.pdf