Musculoskeletal disorders are a major cause for absenteeism in the workplace

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According to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain), approximately 507,000 workers have recently dealt with work-related musculoskeletal disorders. This has been a driving force encouraging more employers to both accommodate employees that suffer from musculoskeletal disorders and prevent their workforce from developing them at work.

Musculoskeletal disorders are described by the NHS as impacting the muscles, bones, and joints of a sufferer. They can also cause back pain and cover some rarer autoimmune diseases. As it is a problem for a number of adults, it’s important for employers to help their employees who suffer from it. 

How can employers support staff with musculoskeletal disorders?

It’s likely that someone working for you is dealing with musculoskeletal pain. One in four of the UK adult population are affected by 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.

Some sufferers may find the pain too difficult to work through, resulting in 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. 

Putting processes in place to reduce absenteeism 

With so many people suffering from the condition, employers need to have a process in place to support them. What can employers do to make work more enjoyable for these employees? And potentially reduce the number of sick days taken?

Flexibility to work from home and reduce travelling

Workers that come to work despite injury or illness and continue to work at a lowered capacity are practicing what is known as presenteeism. 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. 

Travelling to work, be it in the car or by public transport, can be a painful experience for people with musculoskeletal disorders. 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. In addition to this, being able to work from home allows these employees to attend regular rehabilitation or physio therapy appointments and make up for the lost hours in their own time, at home. 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. 

Providing specialist equipment

Ask your employee if they need specialist equipment in order to 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. This may relieve shoulder 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, from stairlifts to supportive chairs — tailored to each person and their needs.

Offering complementary therapies in the office

A great way to support your workers would be to offer therapy for musculoskeletal disorders, even if they already use medication or gel to help ease pain. It could be something that employers could fund or offer to the full workforce.

Managing anxiety and stress levels can be beneficial to sufferers and indeed your workforce as a whole. 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 powerful way to deal with the pain and discomfort of musculoskeletal disorders. 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.

Extra support for staff members

Supporting your staff will make them feel valued. 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. 

Preventative processes 

It’s critical not only to support existing sufferers, but to avoid creating more with workplace practices. 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.

A number of WRMSDs have been linked to certain work patterns, so be aware of:

  • 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. 

Knowing triggers for musculoskeletal disorders is important in order to apply preventative measures. Employers should encourage their staff to take breaks or move away from their workstations frequently (at least once every hour). 

Though the number of people suffering from musculoskeletal disorders is decreasing, it is a prominent problem in the workplace. 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.

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State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017 report — Arthritis Research UK


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