Managing the impact of workplace back pain

26 October 2018

One in three people suffer with some degree of back pain each year, and workplace duties can often be a root cause1. This isn’t just a problem for certain industries – it affects both manual and desk-based workers in large numbers. For employers as a whole, back pain is a huge cause of sickness absence each year. From a managerial perspective, you can do more than you might think to help prevent back pain, and to support employees who are suffering from it.

Preventing back pain in the workplace

Some members of your team may be more at risk of back pain than others. You should have internal processes that allow you to establish their level of risk and any particular needs, such as a health and safety risk assessment questionnaire2.

Encourage people to think about their posture. Provide guidance on, for example, sitting comfortably at a desk. People should ensure their chair height allows them to rest their forearms comfortably on the desk, with their elbows roughly at a right-angle3 . They should be able to use their mouse without having to reach forward and their screen should be at the correct height for their eye level, so they are not looking up or down for long periods of time4. Workers who use laptops are more likely to adopt a poor posture because they look down at the screen5.

In a manual work setting, managers can think about making tasks physically easier for workers. This could include investing in equipment that reduces the need for lifting, for example 2.

Supporting employees with back pain

If a team member is suffering from back pain, it may not only be physically painful, but also affecting their mental health by interfering with simple everyday tasks and general living. Bear this in mind and be supportive, for example reminding them about your employee assistance programme (EAP) if you have one.

The employee concerned may or may not need time off work, depending on the nature of the work that your organisation does. If they have a desk job, it will help for them to stretch and move about during the day as much as they can 3. There are exercises that can help with back pain and anyone affected by it may benefit from seeing a physiotherapist for advice.

As much as possible, help your employee to undertake their day-to-day activities as normally as they can1. Speak to them about how much they feel they can do. Obviously they shouldn’t strain or overexert themselves, but doing a bit more each day, in physical terms, might be a good plan of action for getting back to health 6.

The good news is, back pain is often short-lived and most episodes will get better within four to six weeks with a little self-help 7. A bit of support from their manager could go a long way towards making a difference to a person’s recovery. Bupa has more information about back care that you or your team member may find helpful.

References

1. Back pain. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised April 2015

2. Back pain in the workplace. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed September 2018

3. Work and back pain. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed September 2018

4. Display screen equipment (DSE) workstation checklist. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, published 2013

5. Health and safety of portable display screen equipment. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 23 August 2018

6. Living with back pain. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 23 August 2018

7. Musculoskeletal lower back pain. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated November 2016

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