Musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace: how to support your staff
According to the NHS website, musculoskeletal conditions affect the joints, bones and muscles and also include rarer autoimmune diseases and back pain. Unfortunately, many of the adult population are affected by these sorts of conditions and this can massively impact their quality of life. Employers must therefore consider how their own staff are affected by these sorts of conditions and what they can do to help.
Not exclusively should managers be accommodating for employees with existing musculoskeletal conditions, they must also take preventative measures so that conditions aren’t caused at work. One study, carried out by the HSE (Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain), discovered that 507,000 workers suffered from a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (new or long-standing) in 2016/17.
How can employers provide assistance to staff with musculoskeletal disorders? And, what preventative action can they take to stop these types of disorders developing? Read on as we explore the issues further.
Employment and musculoskeletal disorders
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.
Another problem that comes with having musculoskeletal conditions is struggling with full attendance — 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.
Taking action to help employees
Due to the number of sufferers of musculoskeletal disorders, at one point or another, and employer will have to deal with it in the workplace. What can employers do to make work more enjoyable for these employees? And potentially reduce the number of sick days taken?
Working from home
Employees turning up to work but at a reduced efficiency of the norm due to not feeling fully fit, this is called 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.
Getting to and from work can be difficult for those who experience musculoskeletal pain as getting in and out of a vehicle or riding public transport can be painful. 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.
What’s more, having the capacity to telecommute enables these workers to go to general recovery 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.
Inquiring as to whether they require specialist equipment at work is another approach to enhance their solace and lessen the danger of truancy, 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 provide pain relief from arthritic conditions 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.
Despite the fact that sufferers of musculoskeletal torment are generally prescribed their own medication or may use pain relief gels, offering complementary treatment at work can likewise be useful. It could be something that employers could fund or offer to the full workforce.
Keeping pressure and nervousness levels at minimum is vital in the work environment – added stress can increase pain levels and deter all employees from coming to work. 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 reciprocal treatment that has been found to help with musculoskeletal 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.
Other methods of support
Offering overall support and making all workers feel valued in the workplace is important. What else can employers do to retain staff with musculoskeletal disorders?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Executing safeguard measures
As well as having to accommodate for staff with existing musculoskeletal disorders, it’s also important for companies to have preventative measures in place to stop new injuries from occurring or existing strains 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.
Some WRMSDs are associated with certain work patterns that employees should be aware of, these include:
- Fixed or constrained body positions.
- Repetition 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.
Preventative 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).
As we have seen, in spite of the fact that the quantity of individuals with musculoskeletal disorders is decreasing, it is still prominent in the UK workforce. 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.
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.
State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017 report — Arthritis Research UK