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Why employee back pain matters and 5 ways you can help improve it

Back pain is a pain in the, well, back. Unfortunately it’s a common problem, particularly the lower back variety which affects around 80% of adults at some point during their lives.

In fact, lower back pain is so widespread, a recent study found it to be the biggest cause of disability worldwide. 

 

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Given its prevalence in the general population, it’s pretty likely some of your employees will suffer from a bad back at some point. And it’s not good news for them or you...

The importance of looking after employees' backs

There are countless workplace issues to address that could make employees happier and healthier, why should you prioritise back care? Learn more...

1. Difficult to focus

When experiencing pain, it’s difficult to pay full attention to other activities including work. General aches, soreness or stiffness can affect an employee’s ability to focus. This becomes even more challenging if they are suffering from chronic pain which, according to Remploy, can include side effects such as tiredness, depression and irritability.

2. Lost working days

6.9 million. That's how many working days were lost to back pain in 2018-19 alone, according to a Labour Force Survey from the Health and Safety Executive. The survey also found that 498,000 workers in the UK  suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders. If you want to keep your workforce happy and healthy, tackling this issue is a must.

3. Lowers retention rates

While most lower back pain is short term – typically lasting a few days to a few weeks – around 20% of cases will develop into chronic lower back pain, which can have serious consequences for staff retention rates. The longer an employee suffers from back pain, the less chance they have of returning to work. Musculoskeletal injuries make up 57% of long-term absence for manual workers and 46% for non-manual workers, according to the CIPD Absence Management 2016 survey.

5 tips to improve back care in the workplace

What could employers be doing to ensure their staff have a safe and healthy environment to work in? Learn more...

1. Give your workplace an ergonomic makeover

If it’s been a while since the ergonomics of your workplace have been considered, now is the time. Speak with staff and carry out an ergonomic risk assessment to identify potential problems and possible solutions.  

Solutions could include supplying items such as lumbar support pillows, to help employees to sit correctly at their desk or foot supports to help staff place their feet on a firm surface. Alternatively, speak to your staff about whether they would be keen to trial a standing desk system.

Don't forget staff working from home. Based on their space, it might not be possible for them to have the perfect ergonomic set up, which could lead to problems down the line. Speak to them about their workspace and see if there's anything you can do to support them.

2. Hire an Occupational Health Consultant

For larger companies, or if a large proportion of your employees are suffering from back problems, you may want to consider the advice of a qualified Occupational Health Consultant. They will work with you to come up with solutions that reduce employee’s pain, improve productivity and reduce costs associated with ill health absence.

This might also be a worthwhile route to explore if you work in an industry prone to back disorders. Employees working in construction, transport, and health and social work are statistically much more likely to suffer a bad back than those working in other industries.

3. Encourage exercise

Almost three quarters of those suffering from back pain say they lead a sedentary lifestyle. The NHS says that staying active and achieving the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week, and regular specific back exercises and stretches, can help prevent back pain.

Encourage staff to exercise by taking part in initiatives such as the Cycle to Work scheme or offering weekly exercise classes during lunchtime (if you're able to social distance). You can also encourage a culture of staying active throughout the working day, for example you could try walking meetings or creating a weekly Fitbit step challenge. 

Employees working from home may find they have more time for exercise, but others (especially if they walked/cycled to work) might be struggling. Why not use company-wide emails or your intranet to share exercises that can be done at home?

 These five desk exercises can help your employees get moving. 

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4. Offer business healthcare services

While the costs of back pain to the NHS are estimated at around £1,000 million per year, much of these costs are associated with the small percentage of those whose back pain becomes chronic. There are a number of treatments that can be offered through business healthcare services which can help to avoid acute back pain turning chronic.

Healthcare services such as Benenden Healthcare for Business could provide physiotherapy treatment to help those suffering with back pain get back on their feet. Other plans like Benenden Health Cash Plan for Business, can also reimburse employees for the cost of chiropractic treatment. These treatments can help relieve your employees pain and get them back to work quicker. Learn more about Benenden Healthcare for Business.

5. Supply resources

The Health and Safety Executive suggest supplying your employees with The Back Book, as it contains evidence-based advice on how to cope with back pain. You might also want to point them in the direction of BackCare.org, an independent charity for helping people manage and avoid back pain.

How to sit comfortably at work

Sitting comfortably can have a big impact on back pain. Share these top tips from Benenden Hospital's Lead Physiotherapist, Shinu Varghese with your team.

1. Ensure you have an adjustable chair that can be moved to make sure your lower back is properly supported.

2. Your knees should be very slightly lower than your hips, but not much. If you can’t lower your seat and desk height to make sure your knees are at the right angle and height, get a footrest.

3. You should rest your feet FLAT on the footrest or the floor, not crossed. Don’t stretch out your legs

4. Your forearms should be parallel with the floor and you should have your elbows tucked into your body, not sticking out or resting on armrests. If you find this difficult, try removing the armrests on your chair/getting a chair without them. Otherwise, you risk repetitive strain injuries.

5. Your keyboard should be 4-6 inches from the edge of the desk so you have room to rest your wrists When typing your wrists should be straight. You may find a wrist rest helps you keep them in the right position.

6. Make sure your screen is right in front of you, and you’re not looking up or down at it, or you may strain your neck. You may need a stand for the monitor to get it at the right height (or you could use a pile of books to raise it up!)

7. Angle your screen so your eyes don’t get strained by reflections. Use a mirror in front of the screen to work out what’s dazzling you if it’s not obvious. You may need to use lamps instead of overhead lights or reposition your desk to avoid glare from windows.

8. Although people’s focus differs, to avoid eye strain your monitor should be at arm’s length. If you can’t see it at that distance, consider an eye test.

Sitting in the right position is important, says Shinu Varghese, but so is moving around. “Even the right position is not good if you prolong it for more than half an hour. The human body is primarily designed for running, not sitting down.”

Benenden Health has produced a coronavirus hub, with more tips and information about how to stay healthy as a business and individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak. It also outlines any changes or enhancements to our services in response to the global pandemic.

Visit the COVID-19 hub for more information.

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