Musculoskeletal conditions affect the joints, bones, and muscles, and can included autoimmune diseases, according to the NHS. Many adults are impacted by the problem, which in turn, can have an effect on their daily life. This includes their work life, so it’s important for employers to adapt their workplace to help employees who suffer from musculoskeletal conditions. A study by Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain (HSE), revealed that 507,000 workers in the UK suffered from such a condition in 2016/17.
In this article, we explore what measures employers can take to make sure staff are comfortable at work, as well as how to prevent work tasks causing musculoskeletal problems.
Working with a musculoskeletal condition
The NHS notes that one in four UK adults suffer from musculoskeletal disorders. 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.
As those with joint pains can struggle to maintain full attendance, periods of absenteeism are common. 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.
Given how many people deal with musculoskeletal problems, it is highly likely an employer will have to help an employee at some stage. What can employers do to make work more enjoyable for these employees? And potentially reduce the number of sick days taken?
Allowing workers to work from home
Worse than absenteeism, presenteeism sees workers coming in to work even when they can’t work to full capacity, due to pain or illness. 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.
Particularly for those who suffer musculoskeletal problems, the commute into work can be troublesome. 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.
Working from home also gives employees the flexibility to attend physiotherapy sessions. 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.
A good step would be to ask if employees need any specialist equipment to help work comfortably. 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. By doing this process, you are actively helping with pain relief for you back, for example, and helping 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.
Sufferers likely have their own therapy and medication sorted, but the offer of complementary therapy at work would be good. It could be something that employers could fund or offer to the full workforce.
This also has the added benefit of managing stress and 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.
Yoga is a great complementary therapy that can help with join pain. 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.
It’s important that all employees feel supported. What else can employers do to retain staff with musculoskeletal disorders?
- 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.
It’s vital that employers look to keep employees from developing joint or muscle troubles, or for existing conditions to worsen. 507,000 workers suffered from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) (new or long-standing) in 2016/17. Because of this, 8.9 million working days were lost to WRMSDs in the UK in this time period — accounting for 35% of all working days lost. 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.
WRMSDs are linked to work patterns that employees need to be aware of, including:
- 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.
To prevent potential triggers, awareness is key. Employers should encourage their staff to take breaks or move away from their workstations frequently (at least once every hour).
Musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace are, thankfully, reducing, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. 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.
State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017 report — Arthritis Research UK