Have you noticed that the stigma around mental health issues is starting to fade? With the involvement of high profile individuals, including the British royal family, opening up about their own struggles with stress, anxiety and depression and celebrities now talking candidly about the issue, the subject is emerging from the darkness.
However, for all the recent welcome attention that the important subject of mental health is garnering, we risk taking our eye off the ball when it comes to another equally important health issue; one which, historically, has accounted for the UK’s highest sickness-related workplace absence – musculoskeletal injury. Though somewhat overshadowed by other illnesses in the workplace ‘wellbeing’ conversation, musculoskeletal disorders account for workers taking nearly 14 million sick days every year.
That this topic is falling away from public consciousness is potentially dangerous. Not only could it be diverting employers away from offering appropriate employee protections in their benefits suite, such as health cover, including physiotherapy and back-to-work support, but it may also mean that they are unaware of, or not considering, the bigger picture: the link between musculoskeletal problems and mental ill health. In fact, research shows that workers who are absent from the workplace due to musculoskeletal illness are at risk of developing symptoms of depression in the first year after their injuries.
We know that there has been a notable rise in repetitive strain injury in recent years, causing chronic pain – the sort of pain that could, if not met with appropriate early medical intervention, devolve into serious mental health decline.
Early intervention can have a significant impact on the length and degree of suffering, and ultimately help to stem the risk of depression and ill mental health that employees can experience from chronic pain. Treating the ‘whole person’ rather than a condition in isolation is important to ensuring a quicker return to full health and the workplace.
Musculoskeletal disorder cases accounted for 41 per cent of all work-related illnesses in 2015/16 in the UK.
Back and joint pain can be a significant obstacle in the daily lives of employees, seriously affecting the work they do.
The way the workplace is designed plays an important role in preventing back and joint pain. Make sure the environment is as safe as possible, clear of any tripping or falling hazards that can lead to back injury. Provide employees with proper equipment, such as ergonomic desk spaces for office workers, and the necessary tools and gear for manual workers. Even small changes such as adjusting the height of worktops or providing better handles on loads can make a task physically easier for employees.
Even with all the necessary equipment, the risk of musculoskeletal injury is still present, which is where training and information come into play. Training employees how to properly use tools and gear, as well as training manual workers about proper posture and lifting techniques when dealing with large loads, can make a big difference in joint and back health. Furthermore, employers should encourage employees to take frequent short breaks. Breaking up long periods of sitting this way is better for the back than fewer and longer breaks.
When it comes to ergonomics and preventing musculoskeletal disorders, starting early is the best solution. Perform a company evaluation with a risk assessment and then take any needed steps to improve the current situation.
Advocate employees’ participation in discussions for ideas and solutions, and get them involved in the process. This will not only make the changes more palatable and easily adopted, but it will also help keep employees’ levels of commitment high.
Prevention – say medical experts – is always better than a cure. Employers have it in their power to prevent many cases of mental health problems, by looking more widely at what could be causing these issues in the first place.