A new report suggests that staying at work or returning to work early offer the fastest road to recovery from back pain and other conditions in the family of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
The report from the Work Foundation in the United Kingdomin September describes MSDs as the biggest cause of work-related illness in that country. Many sufferers are taking long periods of sick leave or quitting work altogether, according to the report. The Foundation argues that being able to work helps sufferers of MSDs recover more quickly.
“[Work] may cause or aggravate symptoms of MSDs,” according to Michelle Mahdon, a senior researcher at the foundation, “but evidence is amassing that with the right support arrangements work can also be part of the recovery by contributing to a person’s self-esteem and sense of being productive. What urgently needs to change is the attitude of many [general practitioner doctors] and employers that an MSD sufferer must be 100 per cent well before any return to work can be contemplated. Too many see only incapacity rather than capacity.”
The idea isn’t new. A preeminent expert on the back in the United States, Stover H. Snook, Ph.D., CPE, who teaches a course at the Harvard University School of Public Health in Massachusetts, first started looking into the concept of working with back pain rather than attempting to prevent it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had noticed that the epidemiological data was indicating that regardless of intervention, low back pain would probably still exist.
In an article in The Ergonomics Report® in September 2005, the professor noted that disability can be managed, and the design of the job, behaviors and beliefs can be controlled. He sees an important role for ergonomics in each of the three areas.
In a September 2003 article in the same publication, he explained that the focus should be on designing jobs for those people who will experience the back pain. If a work area is designed so that it accommodates the person with back pain, it only follows that those who don’t have back pain should be comfortable as well. More workers can do the job successfully and with minimal pain. Workers can keep working at their jobs without being moved to different positions or put at a reduced capacity. The key for industry is to remember that some workers will experience back pain no matter what, but the severity of it can probably be diminished along with disability rates.
“It starts with recognition,” says Snook. “Management should recognize that it will happen with most workers. We need to put some compassion in here.”
Addressing the workplace with this in mind is just the start, and Snook admits that ergonomics interventions will probably prevent some of the back pain. “Perhaps even more important is that it permits people to continue working,” he says. “If you can minimize the bending, you’re preventing pain or preventing the aggravation of an underlying condition, [the worker] can still continue to work.”
Sources: Work Foundation; The Ergonomics Report™