The NHS website outlines musculoskeletal conditions as affecting the bones, muscles, and joints, as well as causing back pain and some rarer autoimmune diseases. Sadly, the conditions are linked to a large portion of the adult population and can have a considerable impact on their lives.

Employers need to make sure they support any staff suffering from such disorders. HSE (Health and Safety Great Britain) also points out that companies need to make sure their workplace doesn’t cause such conditions for its employees, with 507,000 workers suffering from work-related musculoskeletal disorders in 2016/17.

What measures can employers take to help support staff with musculoskeletal pain? In this article, we outline what can be done.

Musculoskeletal pain at work
It’s highly likely that someone in your workplace has a musculoskeletal disorder. 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.

Due to the difficulties presented by musculoskeletal pain, some sufferers may have to take time off work for it. 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.

Helping employees

Due to the high number of sufferers, employers really do need to have processes in place to help musculoskeletal disorder sufferers. What can employers do to make work more enjoyable for these employees? And potentially reduce the number of sick days taken?

The option to work from home

Presenteeism sees employees heading into work and working at a reduced capacity due to sickness or injury. 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.

The travel to work can be an uncomfortable experience for sufferers. 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.

Specialist help

Don’t be afraid to ask your employee what they need 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 people experiencing back pain, for example, 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 — tailored to each person and their needs.
Getting complementary therapy

Complementary therapy can be a huge help to sufferers in the workplace. It could be something that employers could fund or offer to the full workforce.

Controlling stress and anxiety levels in the workplace is also helpful for musculoskeletal pain sufferers. 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 really good way to help ease pain from 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.

Further support

Giving support in the workplace is vital for keeping everyone happy. 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 measures

Supporting current sufferers is one thing, but it’s also important to make sure no one develops a musculoskeletal disorder during the course of their work. 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.

Be aware of the following work patterns that have been linked to WRMSDs:

  • 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 and spotting potential triggers helps in order to prevent musculoskeletal disorders at work. Employers should encourage their staff to take breaks or move away from their workstations frequently (at least once every hour).

Though the number of musculoskeletal disorder sufferers is reducing, it is still a key 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.

Author bio: Lee Dover is a senior copywriter at Mediaworks with an interest in healthcare as well as researching into healthier ways of living. He has a BA (Hons) in Magazine Journalism.