27th June 2016
With a greater number of staff increasingly spending longer periods of time at office desks than in the past, there has been a growth in back pain. It is estimated that as many as 15 million working days are lost annually through back conditions, representing a great deal of pain and suffering to the individual, as well as affecting the productivity of the organisations where they work.
So what can be done to help prevent staff suffering from back pain? Sensible safeguards should be included within a company wellbeing policy. It is important for staff to know where they can go for help when they feel their working conditions are causing potential back strain. This also needs to be monitored proactively by the company, including carrying out workstation assessments and recording how much absence is being caused by back conditions, for instance via use of time & attendance software.
Back Pain in the Workplace
According to one recent research study, around 3 million people in the UK are either on long-term sick leave because of back pain or, in more serious cases, are unable to carry on working. However, people taking time off work is only part of the picture.
There are also millions who are not taking time off but are struggling with less serious conditions and may have to take time off in future if their pain worsens. It is estimated that as many as 6 million people could be suffering from undiagnosed back problems. In many cases, their working conditions are a factor leading to back strain.
While lifting is obviously a major risk factor, there is also a high rate of back pain among young professionals. In the same study, around 70% of those aged from 24 to 35 admitted to spending most of their time sitting down. Spending too long in the same position and failing to exercise puts a strain on the back.
Unfortunately, many people who have felt twinges of pain become worried that exercising will make it worse, and so their lifestyle becomes even more sedentary. However, there is evidence that in fact daily exercise, such as swimming and walking, is one of the most important ways of protecting your spine. Exercise can also help to prevent obesity, which is in itself a major contributor to backache.
Many employees have said in surveys that they feel there is not enough support available in their organisations to prevent or cope with back pain. Some also say they do not receive regular workstation assessments.
How Can Organisations Help to Prevent Back Pain?
There are various steps which employers can take to be aware of the risks and then to minimise them. Exactly what should be done depends on the type of work, but carrying out risk assessments and consulting staff can show what changes need to be made. For instance, where possible moving loads on wheels to avoid heavy lifting can reduce the risk to people working in loading areas.
In an office environment, the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 apply. This means workstation assessments must be carried out to reduce risk and staff must be given training in how to sit comfortably at their desks. There is a need to ensure workstations are well-designed, so that staff can sit comfortably, with their back against the back of the chair and enough room under the desk for their feet. They may need a footrest to sit comfortably. The position of the keyboard and mouse are also factors to consider.
Ergonomic design can help here, by ensuring that staff’s backs are not put under unnecessary strain. Ergonomics are something which are increasingly seen as a priority in designing office furniture and also the layout of offices. Chair designs on the market include models with backrests and headrests which automatically adapt to the body’s shape, while there is also an increasing trend for staff to spend some time working at standing desks as a break from sitting.
Whatever type of furniture you choose for your office, staff need to be trained and aware of the risks. For instance, even with the latest ergonomic designs, it is important to know how to adjust the height of chairs. Staff members need to know where to go if they need different equipment or changes to their workstation. Broken equipment also needs to be replaced as a matter of urgency, since a chair or desk with a broken height-adjusting mechanism is worse than useless.
Seating arrangements are not the only factor in safe workstation use, however. Staff also need to be encouraged to take regular screen breaks, move around the office and go out of the building at lunchtime rather than sitting in the same position.
Healthy eating and general staff wellbeing policies are also important, both in preventing back pain and in helping staff to recover if they do suffer from this. An employee wellbeing strategy will help to encourage a positive attitude, something which has been shown to help in recovering from a back injury.
If staff are off work with back pain, IRIS FMP HR’s time & attendance software, included within our Teamspirit modular system, can help to manage sickness absence. It will also help HR teams to gather the data which is needed to create an effective staff wellbeing policy.