By Robert Kingdom, Head of Marketing, Masterlease

Company car drivers may be viewed as the backbone of the UK economy, but modern working practices mean that they are opening themselves up to serious back pain and lumber issues, according to new research from Loughborough University funded by the BUPA Foundation.

Although conducted in one sample occupation — sales of pharmaceutical products - the tendency to use the car as a mobile office is symptomatic of modern ‘rep’ life. Amongst Britain’s three million fleet drivers there is also a trend towards poor back health in later life, the research shows.

The team from the University’s respected Department of Human Sciences and supported by leading fleet management company Masterlease, questioned more than 200 drivers about their working conditions including their hours, miles driven and the modern pressures of their role. Some questioned had taken sick leave due to lumber pain, but the majority were suffering from, or had complained of, back pain and had similar factors in common:

• Long working hours and driving in excess of 20 hours per week

• High mileage — an average of 22,000 business miles per year

• Excessive use of their cars as mobile offices — up to 40% of their time spent behind the wheel on their mobiles, laptops, completing paperwork and eating ‘on the go’

• The high target number of sales visits — up to 20 GPs surgeries per day

• Poor driving ergonomics - the inability or lack of knowledge of how to adjust their driving position

• Carrying of heavy work-related items — laptops, mobile display units etc

• Remote job roles disconnected from their head offices

In the case of remote working, many drivers resisted training on better posture as a form of centralised control.

The results were also compared to similar findings among pharmaceutical sales reps in Japan, Denmark and Turkey where long working hours, excessive mileage and manual handling of equipment was seen to contribute to lower back pain (55%), shoulder discomfort (41%) and neck problems (35%). Musculoskeletal symptoms defined as aches, pains, discomfort, tingling and numbness were largely attributed to fixed postures, vibration and manual handling. Most of the sample were not storing sales equipment in their boots correctly and were taking an ‘ad-hoc’ approach to handling.

Interestingly, the respondents — equally split between male and female — did not view their car as a tool of the job, but as a perk, although they argued they could not be as effective using public transport. Despite the known health risks of excessive time in the car and the probability of back pain, this factor did not influence drivers as to the choice of vehicles. Instead, these were selected on the basis of status/prestige, engine size, tax bracket, appearance and size.

Report authors, Dr Diane Gyi and Dr Kate Sang, conclude: “Given that much of the data confirmed the importance of the car as a work tool used for travel, as an office, as a means of transporting items requiring manual handling, it is surprising that these factors were not influential in the company car choice. Instead, respondents reported a number of other influences suggesting that the car is viewed not as a tool, but as a perk of the job. This is supported by research within other sales sectors where company cars are seen as a key motivator to perform well and as a status symbol. Employers should consider the role of car choice in musculoskeletal health and to encourage drivers to evaluate the suitability of a vehicle for work task.”

Masterlease, which fleet manages more than 56,000 UK vehicles, contributed to the sample research. The research is both very interesting and ultimately conclusive. It proves a point that we as a business strive to get across to customers. There is more to company car choice than what it looks like or how it makes a driver feel in terms of status — especially if it ultimately makes the drivers ill.

There is a role for employers to communicate the message that how the car will be used is pivotal to its selection, because getting it wrong will cost businesses dear in terms of lost hours due to ill health and drivers in terms of their long-term health.

For further information please refer to www.drivingergonomics.com

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