Having left his position as Health and Social Care Secretary back in 2018, Jeremy Hunt might have been forgiven for thinking that back and joint pain would no longer be encompassed within his ministerial remit, particularly as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, as he outlined in the 2023 Spring Budget, musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions are one of the two leading causes of long-term sickness among adults in the UK alongside mental health, making them a major driver of economic inactivity.

As a result, the Chancellor introduced a series of plans designed to assist thousands of people with MSK conditions in entering, returning or remaining in regular employment. This included additional funding for MSK resources, the scaling up of MSK hubs in the community, and the introduction of a new programme to provide integrated employment and health support. This was followed in July by the launch of a consultation on measures to increase the reach and uptake of Occupational Health services among employers.

A growing problem

The breadth of these measures provides an indication of how seriously the government perceives the problem to be, and many employers have also become all too aware of the issue in recent years. Since the start of the pandemic an additional 400,000 people are affected by long-term sickness, making a total of around 2.5 million.

Among this total, 1.35 million are affected by MSK conditions, with more than two-thirds of those (70%) reporting more than one type of MSK condition. Over the past four years, problems with legs and feet have increased by 29% and problems with back or neck have risen by 28%.

For business owners, these figures are felt in terms of absence, a diminished workforce and lost productivity. They also might be seen as the tip of an iceberg, since there will be further employees whose ability to perform might be impaired by a MSK condition but who might not be counted among the long-term sick.

In every case, individuals should be supported in terms of their rights to sick pay and any company healthcare provision. At the same time, human resource departments must address pragmatic considerations in relation to the company’s talent requirements.

Supporting the individual

It must not be forgotten, of course, that at the centre of this situation is a person suffering from the pain and discomfort of a musculoskeletal problem. For clarity, this term encompasses injuries and conditions that can affect the back, joints and limbs, and employers have a duty to protect their employees from the risks of MSK disorders at work.

While roles involving manual labour or repetitive physical activity are an obvious source of such risks, workers spending prolonged periods of time on a computer are also prone to MSK conditions. Problems can be triggered by poor posture, which itself can be a symptom of having a sub-optimal work set-up based on your seating position and its relation to the work surface, screen and keyboard.

Within the workplace, employers typically undertake measures to avoid MSK problems, including ergonomic assessments to evaluate workspaces. However, much of the blame for the recent increase in MSK conditions has been placed at the door of home working, which has remained a fixture of the modern workplace since its necessary introduction during the pandemic.

In home environments, employees often do not have access to the same equipment and facilities that they would at work, instead using laptops in makeshift kitchen or bedroom offices without the required level of back or neck support.

Prevention and protection

By adopting a proactive stance, companies can help prevent MSK problems from escalating. This can include consistent communication on the importance of a healthy working environment and the value of taking regular breaks as well as structured training to educate staff on avoiding physical risks, both in the workplace and at home. Supporting resources are available from the charity BackCare, which will be drawing attention to the issue during Back Care Awareness Week 2023, a campaign focused on back pain prevention which runs from the 2nd October.

Physical wellbeing programmes can also be an effective preventive measure. Studies have shown that yoga in particular can help reduce back pain, reduce demand for MSK-related healthcare support, and support long-term reduction in sick leave sue to MSK conditions. Helpfully, it can also help reduce stress, which is invaluable in light of research suggesting as many as 82% of UK workers have suffered from physical pain as a result of stress levels at work.

If problems do arise, however, their impact can be minimised when they are discovered early and dealt with quickly. Group risk (income protection) and private medical insurance policies can be helpful here in providing employees with financial help and supporting swift intervention by a physiotherapist or by providing access to specialist private healthcare services that can accelerate rehabilitation.

In a perfect world, preventive measures would largely negate the need for this protection, but in the real world, the combination of prevention and cure can be a powerful, pragmatic way to support workers with their MSK wellbeing.


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