Back issues can cause pain for people AND businesses

13th August 2018

Back pain is on the rise and it’s not because we’re overexerting ourselves. Quite the opposite actually; excessive sitting is becoming pandemic and we shouldn’t be burying our heads in the sand about what it is probably doing to us.

According to the NHS, sitting for long periods of time (I’m looking at you, fellow desk dwellers) is linked to “being overweight and obese, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and early death”. This is on top of it slowing the metabolism and negatively impacting on how effectively our bodies can regulate blood sugar, blood sugar and break down fat.

Following the obvious advice of ‘move more’ is easier said than done for lots of us. Many people have a sedentary desk job sandwiched between long commutes sitting in their car and punctuated by collapsing onto the sofa at the end of the day. One of the most common side effects of a sedentary lifestyle, back pain, can actually make the problem worse as our body tells us to rest, when actually that’s the worst thing we can do for most common back issues. And so the vicious circle continues.

How bad is the nation’s back pain?

A staggering 3,204,000 working days were lost to back disorders in Great Britain in 2016/17 with many adults sitting for between 7 and 10 hours per day. An estimated 80% of the population suffers from back pain at some point during their lives and 2.5 million people in the UK suffer every single day of the year. This costs the NHS an alarming 12.3bn per year, which is nearly a quarter of the annual expenditure. So to answer the question posed above: it’s very bad.

What are the impacts of back pain?

For the lucky ones, back pain is intermittent and can be managed, resulting in it going away on its own. However, that’s not the case for everyone. The amount of time people have to take off due to back pain has the ability to hit businesses hard, especially for SMEs who don’t necessarily have the appropriate back up to continue functioning as normal if people are off regularly or long term with any sort of ailment. Back pain is especially linked with extended periods of leave, as studies have shown that the longer someone is off sick with it, the higher the chance of them not returning to work; “if an individual has been off sick with back problems for 1 month, there is a 20% chance of them still being off work one year later. If they have been off sick for 6 months, there is a 50% chance of them being off work one year later” (Waddell, The Back Pain Revolution).

Large businesses would struggle to have people off sick for 6 months at a time, let alone smaller ones, which begs the question…

What can businesses do to prevent employees suffering from back pain?

  1. Discourage employees from being chained to their desks. Short periods of stretching, walking and standing every 30 minutes is what the NHS recommends. Provide an infrastructure that facilitates this, such as a kitchen area away from desks so that people have to go for a walk to get drinks.
  2. Promote regular exercise. Cycle to work schemes, subsidised gym memberships and lunchtime yoga sessions are just a few ways to build regular exercise into everyone’s work lives.
  3. Pay attention to the workstation. This includes screen height and distance, keyboard positioning, ergonomic seating and full adjustability for every single employee. Most of this is actually written into law with the Display Screen Equipment Regulations.
  4. Provide training on how to lift. Lifting and moving heavy items is a leading cause of back injuries, so appropriate guidance should be provided to anyone who is required to do this as part of their job.
  5. Monitor sickness absence. Using HR software to record when and why people are off sick can provide valuable data that you can use to make changes. If you can see that back pain and other musculoskeletal issues are a cause of absence, you can start having a conversation about what you can do as an employer to help out your staff.

Back pain is not something any business should ignore. Prevention is better than cure, so you should really be spending the time and money required to properly support your staff, figuratively and literally. Whether you need to upgrade the office chairs, encourage everyone to take more breaks or provide some extra training, you will be making a worthy investment; not just in the lives and health of your employees, but in the operational abilities of your company and the workforce.