How to repurpose a health and wellbeing strategy to help manage musculoskeletal disorders


Need to know:

  • Mental health can be closely interlinked with physical conditions, such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
  • Rehabilitation initiatives, such as modified duties and flexible working, are a key approach to reintroducing staff back into the workplace after an MSD-related absence.
  • Wearable technology and health initiatives can be a useful tool for encouraging physical activity in the workplace.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can affect all demographics within an organisation’s workforce, so exploring how an existing health and wellbeing strategy can be utilised to support employees is a wise move.

MSDs can have a more direct impact on organisations and employees than may first be assumed, says Paul Wimpenny, senior chartered physiotherapist and clinical governance officer at PhysioMed. For employers, this includes a loss of hours worked, reduced productivity and increased sickness absence figures, while for employees this could include a decline in financial income and the impact on their mental wellbeing.

Risk management, awareness and education campaigns, as well as easy, convenient and fast access to treatment, such as physiotherapy, are all strategies an employer can take to tackle MSDs, says Jan Vickery, head of clinical operations at Axa PPP Healthcare. But what other aspects of an organisation’s existing wider health and wellbeing programme can also be utilised to help support employees with musculoskeletal conditions?

1. Flexible-working initiatives

Wimpenny disregards the traditional statement that ‘someone should not come back to work to work unless they are fully better’. Instead, a more flexible approach can aid staff. Flexible-working initiatives can accommodate those suffering with MSDs, helping to ease staff who may not be fully fit back into the workplace with modified duties.

“There will be a period where the employee is 60% fit and they could come back and do 60% of the role,” says Wimpenny. “[Employers] need to be aware of that and the timeframe for that, so [organisations] can bring that employee back in and reintroduce them to work.”

2. Mental health support mechanisms

Physical health issues, such as MSDs, can also have a knock-on impact on an employee’s mental wellbeing. Dominic Howard, European director at Best Doctors, says: “Stress and physical problems are often intertwined.”

Taking a more holistic approach and co-ordinating MSD-related and mental wellness support can help to address this.

The mental strain and stress of having a musculoskeletal condition can sometimes create more of a problem for employees than their physical symptoms, says Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance. “People with back pain who are absent from work, suffer from the same types of concerns as any absent employee,” he explains. “These could range from financial concerns [to the] fear that the workplace is moving on beyond them or that others are covering their work better than they are, so while the starting cause of an absence might be back pain, after a period of time, mental health can supersede this.”

Access to early intervention services, day-one vocational rehabilitation, a second medical opinion service, an employee assistance programme (EAP), and a treatment sourcing service are among the schemes that organisations could offer to support staff during MSD-related absence, adds Avis.

However, it is not just the mental wellbeing of the employee suffering from an MSD that needs to be considered, says Wimpenny. When a member of staff is absent from work, their colleagues may see their workloads increase, which can, in turn, increase stress levels and reduce productivity. Employee benefits, such as EAPs, can form part of the support system available to those affected.

3. Physical activity initiatives

Fostering a culture that encourages and enables staff to lead a healthy lifestyle, such as physical activity initiatives and good nutrition, can have a positive impact on an employees’ overall health and wellbeing. “Anything that emphasises strong bones, eating well, [and] staying supple, so there’s less strain on muscles,” says Howard. “If [employees] are leading a sedentary lifestyle, [they’re] potentially going to be putting on more weight [and] more weight means [they] are putting more stress on [their] legs, back and so on.”

Taking short breaks to move around throughout the working day can also help. For example, the 20/20/20 rule recommends that every 20 minutes, an employee should stand up and move around for at least 20 seconds and make sure to look at something 20 feet away, explains Wimpenny. This helps to re-position the discs in an employee’s back and reduces eyestrain.

Changes to the office environment can also support those with MSDs. This includes making adjustments to workstations, such as reviewing desk set-up and providing supportive chairs. For example, a common mistake is opting for a semi-circular desk when it is, in fact, better for spine posture to sit against a straight edge, says Wimpenny.

4. Health and wellbeing technology

Wellbeing technology, such as activity trackers, can help employees take a more proactive approach to their physical health and encourage physical activity. “Once [staff] enter that cycle of tracking [themselves] and even competitive monitoring within the workplace, [they] can do things that take [them] away from this sedentary lifestyle or at least mitigate the risks of spending a lot of time hunched and sitting,” says Howard. “The gadget market is one that is booming and I’ve no doubt that [wearable technology] is going to take an even greater hold within the workplace.”

Repurposing a health and wellbeing strategy can be an effective way of tackling MSDs in the workplace. Rehabilitation schemes can offer important support to employees, fitness-based initiatives can help to reduce the impact of consistent desk-bound working, and mental health programmes can play a key role in supporting the wider wellbeing of affected staff.