Don’t look back in anger

Keep your employees' backs in good health

There were 469,000 cases of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in 2017/2018 with 6.6 million working days lost due to MSDs. Of these, 40% were back-related.

Some shocking related statistics

  • Deprivation: people aged 45–64 years of age (working age) in the most deprived areas are almost twice as likely to report back pain as those from the least deprived areas
  • Obesity: people who are obese are four times more likely to develop back pain than those with a healthy body weight
  • Depression: the odds of back pain in people with symptoms of depression have been shown to be 50% higher than in those without symptoms of depression
  • Smoking: the prevalence of low back pain is approximately 50% higher in daily smokers compared to non–smokers.

Lots of us - at work or otherwise - experience back pain at some time or other and it usually improves within a short time. Pain in the lower back is particularly common, although it can be felt anywhere along the spine, from the neck down to the hips. In most cases, the pain isn’t caused by anything serious and will usually get better over time.

As a manager, what can you do?

If an employee has back pain:

  • Listen to them and allow them time to explain their situation, if they wish to
  • Reassure them you can help and allow them time away from work as appropriate
  • Advise them to keep moving if possible, e.g. get up and use the photocopier
  • Allow them more breaks during the day and ideally, allow them to stand/move every 30minutes
  • Consider if there are things they can do as part of their job to keep moving
  • Allow them to avoid rush hour travel, thereby limiting long periods of sitting/standing
  • See if they can car share rather than drive
  • Check if they can reduce the weight of any work bag and ensure both shoulder straps are used to distribute the weight
  • Ensure DSE assessments/manual handling assessments, etc have been completed recently
  • If they are off work or are not improving within one week, then refer them to your occupational health provider for further advice.

What can an employee do?

To relieve back pain:

  • Stay as active as possible and try to continue your daily activities; resting for long periods is likely to make the pain worse
  • Try exercises and stretches for back pain; other activities such as walking, swimming or yoga may also be helpful
  • Take anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen. Do check the medicine is safe for you to take first and ask a pharmacist if you’re not sure
  • Use hot or cold compression packs for short-term relief, available from your local pharmacy, or a hot water bottle or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth will work just as well
  • It also helps if you stay optimistic and recognise that your pain should get better, as people who manage to stay positive despite their pain tend to recover quicker.

Seeking help and advice

Back pain usually gets better on its own within a short time. The employee may not need to see a doctor/other healthcare professional. However, it’s a good idea for them to get help if the pain doesn’t start to improve within this period or it stops them doing their day-to-day activities. Also, if the pain is very severe, gets worse over time, they’re worried about the pain or are struggling to cope, it’s worth seeking help and advice.

Their GP will ask about their symptoms, examine their back and discuss possible treatments. They may refer them to a specialist doctor or a physiotherapist for further help.

The employee should seek IMMEDIATE help if they have any of the following symptoms: numbness or tingling around your genitals or buttocks, difficulty peeing, loss of bladder or bowel control, chest pain, a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above, unexplained weight loss, a swelling or a deformity in your back, it doesn't improve after resting or is worse at night or it started after a serious accident, such as after a car accident. These could be signs of something more serious.

Reducing the risk of back pain - employee

  • Do regular back exercises and stretches – your GP/physiotherapist can advise you about exercises to try
  • Stay active – doing regular exercise can help keep your back strong; adults are advised to do 150 minutes of exercise across the week
  • Avoid sitting for too long when driving or at work
  • Take care when lifting – read some safe lifting tips, e.g. NHS Choices or speak to your occupational health provider
  • Check your posture when sitting, using computers and watching television
  • Ensure your mattress supports you properly
  • Lose weight through a healthy diet and exercise if you’re overweight – as mentioned above, people who are obese are four times more likely to develop back pain than those with a healthy body weight.

Reducing the risk of MSDs - employer

As an employer, you can ensure that those doing lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying undertake appropriate manual handling training and use lifting equipment wherever possible, reducing the risk of MSDs and other injuries. You can also provide assessments and training for desk-based staff. See our recent newsletter for tips.

Duradiamond Healthcare provides the full range of occupational health and wellbeing services including physiotherapy, workplace assessments and advice on workplace adjustments. Speak to us today.

State of Musculoskeletal Health 2018 - Arthritis Research UK

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