By Mark Fletcher, Clinical Director of Physio Med
The health and wellbeing of employees is often at the top of any employers’ priorities list, as sickness absence poses a major problem in the workplace. More than 130 million working days are being lost to sickness absence every year in the UK, with almost one million employees taking at least four weeks off per year due to sickness.
As back pain is currently the largest reported reason for sickness absence in the UK, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), and how they are tackled, are a big issue for employers. Recent research among NHS trusts also showed that the length of absence due to MSDs is almost four days longer than the average length of time taken off for other illnesses and injuries.
It is a common misconception that sitting at a desk working on a computer makes you pretty safe from sustaining an injury at work. It is also often assumed that work place injuries only occur in factories, warehouses or in other physically demanding jobs but in fact almost 30% of reported workplace injuries occur in office-based jobs.
Employers are facing increasing pressures to find a solution that improves absence rates and employee wellbeing. The answer could lie in working to prevent injuries before they happen. Whilst employers have a number of obligations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff, there are also many measures that employees, as individuals, can take to stay fit and injury free.
On average, 41% of office workers spend less than 30 minutes a day standing up at work, most likely spending the rest of the time staring at a computer. It is paramount that employers carry out a DSE (Display Screen Equipment) assessment to be sure that all workstations are correctly set up. This includes everything from ensuring chairs are in good working order and set to the right height and angles, to where and how the mouse, screen and keyboard are positioned.
Once all this is in place the onus is on the employee to sit properly – but also to keep moving. Sitting in any static position, no matter how good the employees’ posture, for a long period puts the body under strain. In fact, while standing upright puts 100 units of pressure on the spine, sitting down increases that to 140 units – and sitting incorrectly almost double it to 185 units. Employees should always try to sit so that their ear, shoulder and hip are in line, ensuring the spine is in its natural ‘S’ curve.
Moving around on a regular basis is the best possible way of avoiding any musculoskeletal injuries and there are many simple exercises that can be done at the desk to prevent injury. For example, to stretch the neck muscles: sit up straight with a slight curve in the base of the spine, focus on an object at eye level and slowly (without moving your shoulders or looking up or down) tuck your chin in and hold the position for two seconds. Employers should make their employees aware of exercises such as this, which aim to safeguard against MSDs.
Though preventative measures are invaluable, many businesses are now working with external providers to establish a cost effective service that provides faster access to physiotherapy. Remote physiotherapy services can improve work efficiency, facilitate an early return to work, reduce the risk of further absence due to injury recurrence and provide education on injuries. And, from an employer’s point of view, these services can cost effectively deliver great results in terms of reduction in sickness absence.
Back pain is something that can affect anyone in almost any job role so having good working environment practices set up and a cost effective mechanism in place to help employees deal with their illness while minimising the impact on a company makes sound business sense. There is no doubt about it: when it comes to improving employee wellbeing, reducing sickness absence should be at the top of every firm’s agenda.