Musculoskeletal conditions can affect the bones, muscles and joints, according to the NHS website, while there may also include some rare autoimmune diseases and back pain. A lot of the adult population unfortunately suffer from these types of conditions, impacting their quality of life considerably. As a result, employers need to understand how their own staff members are affected by musculoskeletal conditions — as well as the steps they can take to help.

As well as being accommodating for members of staff with existing musculoskeletal conditions, employers must also look into preventative measures that they can take to ensure conditions don’t develop through the work employees undertake. 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.

What can employers be doing to support the staff members who have musculoskeletal disorders then? And, what preventative action can they take to stop these types of disorders developing? Read on as we explore the issues further.

Links between musculoskeletal disorders and employment

Musculoskeletal disorders affect one in four of the UK’s adult population. 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.

People who have musculoskeletal conditions also struggle to achieve 100% attendance. This results 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.

How employers can help their employees

There is a good chance that an employer will have at least one member of staff with a musculoskeletal condition, considering the number of people who suffer from one of the disorders. What can employers do to make work more enjoyable for these employees? And potentially reduce the number of sick days taken?

Option 1: work from home

Presenteeism is the term given when staff members attend the workplace but with difficult or reduced efficiency and productivity as a result of them not feeling entirely fit to work. 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.

Those who suffer from musculoskeletal pain may also find the commute difficult. This is due to the fact that 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.

Employees with musculoskeletal conditions who are allowed to work from home also have the opportunity to attend rehabilitation or physio therapy appointments regularly. They can then 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.

Option 2: Specialist equipment

Another way to improve comfort for employees, as well as to reduce the chance of absenteeism and further injury, is to ask staff members if they need the use of any specialist equipment at work. 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 offering pain relief for your back, for instance, you 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.

Option 3: Complementary therapy

Those who suffer from musculoskeletal pain are often prescribed their own medication or may make use of pain relief gels. However, offering complementary therapy at work can also be helpful. It could be something that employers could fund or offer to the full workforce.

It’s important in any workplace for employers to try and keep stress and anxiety levels at a minimum. After all, 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.

One form of complementary therapy that’s shown to help with musculoskeletal pain is yoga. 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.

Additional methods of support

Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of offering overall support and making every member of staff feel valued in the workplace as well. 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.

Some preventative measures to implement

We have covered the need to accommodate employees with existing musculoskeletal disorders in depth. However, it’s also important for companies to have preventative measures in place to stop new injuries from occurring or existing strains to worsen.

Throughout 2016/17, 507,000 workers suffered from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) (new or long-standing). 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.

Certain work patterns are linked to some WRMSDs. These include:
• 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.

Think about the potential triggers of musculoskeletal conditions in each organisation when considering preventative measures that can be introduced into your workplace. Employers should encourage their staff to take breaks or move away from their workstations frequently (at least once every hour).

While the number of people suffering from musculoskeletal disorders is decreasing, it’s clear that it’s still prominent throughout 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.

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.

State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017 report — Arthritis Research UK