Poor musculoskeletal health and workforce productivity

Blog posts

5 Jul 2016

Professor Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

Are you sitting comfortably? Well, if you are at your desk, or commuting to work, or on a rest break from a job where you are on your feet all day, the chances are you are not. Despite the fact that the number of UK workers doing heavy manual work has declined, our musculoskeletal health at work remains a serious cause for concern. With much of our work being sedentary in nature, it is perhaps not surprising that some people (including me) have suggested that ‘sitting is the new smoking’. Back pain, neck complaints and shoulder ache are all musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) which affect many UK workers every day. For some of us they cause considerable discomfort and loss of productivity.

There are over 200 MSDs including back, shoulder and neck pain, joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis and injuries due to working conditions or physically demanding work. Over 40 million EU workers have MSDs caused by their work, and in the EU they cause almost 50 per cent of all absences from work lasting three days or longer and 60 per cent of permanent work incapacity. The direct and indirect costs of MSDs have been estimated at €240 billion each year – up to 2 per cent of GDP across the EU. To compound the problem still further, up to 30 per cent of people with MSDs also have depression, which makes it more difficult to stay in or return to work. In the UK, 31 million working days were lost to MSDs in 2013 – more than the 29 million days lost through industrial action in 1978/79, at the height of the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

A new report, ‘Working with Arthritis, published today by Arthritis Research UK looks at the challenges at work faced by people living with a range of MSDs (including both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) and sets out the steps needed to be taken by clinicians, employers and policy-makers to make sure that MSDs are not an obstacle to people having long and fulfilling working lives. This is especially the case as the workforce ages, as obesity increases, and as we all have to work longer.

My colleague Jim Hillage carried out research which showed that there are a number of interventions (physical therapy, education, ergonomic advice etc) which can help people with MSDs return to work successfully and cost-effectively. My own research shows that intervening early, and including a component which addresses any co-morbid mental health problems, can also be cost-effective and support sustained return to work. Building on this evidence base, the government is hoping that a significant number of people with chronic MSDs will find that the new Fit for Work Service will provide individualised support to get back to work. IES has already carried out evaluations for the Department of Work and Pensions  (DWP) of the operation of the Fit Note, including their use with workers living with MSDs. We are currently conducting an evaluation of the Fit for Work Service too, and we hope to be able to provide data to the DWP in the coming months about the outcomes for workers with a range of health conditions, including MSDs.

The ‘Working with Arthritis’ report is a timely reminder that workforce health needs to be an important priority for everyone with an interest in maximising both labour productivity in the UK and the quality of our working lives.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.