From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Study: Absenteeism and Presenteeism Increase with Perception of Danger by Low Back Pain Sufferers

Workers with low back pain (LBP) who feared work tasks were dangerous relative to their condition had a significantly higher incidence of lost work days (absenteeism) and reduced work productivity (presenteeism), according to a recent Swiss cross-sectional study of 670 subjects. 

A lower correlation was found between absenteeism/presenteeism and LBP workers who expected the condition to produce negative long term consequences.

During the four week study assessment period:

  • 5.1 percent of the participants reported loss work time with an average loss of 9.3 days
  • 25.1 percent reported reduced work productivity
  • 17.5 percent of those reporting reduced productivity had also taken at least one lost work day

The Bottom Line – How This Applies To Ergonomists
The uniqueness of this study involves the identification and quantification of presenteeism’s high prevalence among workers with LBP.  Presenteeism tends to be overlooked as a business cost.  However, studies have found that presenteeism is the greatest contributor to the overall (direct and indirect) costs of chronic disorders. 

Also, other research has found that the degree of a LBP worker’s perception of an inevitable negative future is correlated with:

  • Work absence
  • Failure to return to work
  • Long term work disability

This study focused on the beliefs of the LBP worker relative to work activities and the future. Through administrative and engineering controls, ergonomists can lessen task related low back forces and make it easier to perform essential functions. Further, an ergonomist could provide education specifically geared to a worker’s low back condition (i.e., what to expect over time, how to perform select tasks, and what motions/activities to avoid). This combination could potentially save a substantial amount of money for a company by reducing the frequency/duration of lost work days and increasing productivity for an experienced employee with LBP.

Other Key Study Points
Those reporting reduced work productivity compared to those who claimed no drop off in productivity were also characterized by:

  • older age
  • other musculoskeletal symptoms
  • other neurological symptoms
  • psychological complaints
  • tumors

The authors admit that self report of productivity should be validated by objective evaluation of work activity.

Study Methods
From a population based cross-sectional survey involving the musculoskeletal health of 16,634 volunteers, a random sample of 2,507 subjects was created. Study criteria involved the establishment of two equally represented groups: those with low back pain and those without.  A select subgroup of 670 volunteers was identified and became the cluster of the investigation’s concern – they had low back pain at the time of the study, were employed, and were less than 65 years old.

These participants were sent a packet that contained a Back Beliefs Questionnaire and a Fear Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire.  Inquires also identified if the subject had any lost work time due to low back pain over the prior four weeks and if there was any reduction in work productivity in the past week due to low back pain.

A variety of potential confounder information was also collected such as demographic data, comorbidities, back pain intensity, and activities of daily living limitations.

Comparison in belief scores was made between subjects who:
• had a low back pain related lost work day versus those with no lost work days
• reported compromised work productivity due to low back pain versus those who claimed normal productivity  

This complete paper can be acquired at:

Article Title: The Association Between Beliefs About Low Back Pain and Work Presenteeism

Publication: Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 51:1256-1266, 2009

Authors: A F Mannion, B Horisberger, C Eisenring, O Tamcan, A Elfering, and U Müller

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-12-16.