Almost 31 million days of work were lost last year due to back, neck and muscle problems, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS’s Labour Force Survey, which polls hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, found that musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions, which include a large range of bone and joint complaints, accounted for more prolonged absences than any other ailment. Sick leave is costing the UK economy £14bn a year, the report suggests.
The second most common health problem in European workplaces was identified as work related stress. Stress, depression and anxiety caused more than 15 million sick days in the UK in 2013, according to research by the BBC.
“Sitting is the new smoking”
Professor Steve Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation, explains that “the more sedentary you are the worse it is for your health.” Prolonged sitting has been linked to detrimental health effects and lost productivity in the work place. Research suggests that the human body is at its best when it is moving, not when it is spending 8 hours at a time in front of a computer screen.
It has also been noted that once symptoms of MKS do occur, both employers and employees are slow to react. A two-year trial in Madrid showed that by assessing and treating 13,000 workers with chronic back pain who had been off for five days or more, their temporary work absence was reduced by 39% in the long term. The Work Foundation estimates that more than 60,000 Britons would be available for work if the Madrid tactics were replicated in the UK.
The next posture is the best posture
Knowing how to identify and prevent causes of MSK is crucial for those of us required to work at a desk. Improving posture is an excellent first step. Try not to hunch over at work – instead maintain a neutral pelvic position with a straight and upright back, which will mean that the vertebrae in your back are nicely aligned. This takes a lot of pressure off of your back and neck muscles, which should reduce back pain and can reduce the chances of a musculoskeletal disorder developing. Leaning back at 135º from time to time can also help to stretch out your lower back muscles and lower your risk of chronic pain. An ergonomic chair which properly supports the lower back encourages good posture.
We might be limited in our movements in our work life, but that gives us no excuse when we are off the clock. Exercise is an excellent way to counter the problems posed by a sedentary work life, with as little as 75 minutes of yoga per week linked to 50% reduction in back pain. Massage, which reduces tension in the back, neck and shoulder muscles, has been shown to reduce discomfort caused by tight muscles.
Jackie Price, Managing Director at On Site Plus, comments: “It’s sad, but unsurprising, that so many people are absent from work for long periods of time due to musculoskeletal disorders. However, with up to 60,000 Britons potentially able to return to work given proper assessment and treatment, it is imperative that employers take proper preventative action to combat lost productivity due to back pain.
Rather than making do with a skeleton staff or relying on temps when employees do fall absent due to MSKs, employers should consider educating their workplace about good posture practice. Investing in equipment and services that are proven to reduce absenteeism may well pay off long term.”
Yvonne Humphries is Operations Director at Onsite Plus, a company dedicated to bringing therapeutic massage into the workplace