MC Schraefel: How employers can reduce staff absence caused by chronic workplace pain

Workplace pain is a familiar experience to most people in the UK. The Trades Union Congress estimates that British businesses lose 4.9 million days a year to absenteeism resulting from back pain.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Workplace pain is a familiar experience to most people.
  • Employers should offer staff opportunities to move about throughout the day.
  • Organisations have to commit to embedding wellbeing practices into their culture to optimise their success.

Pain is a vicious cycle that often causes people to become more constricted in their movement in order to avoid the pain. That constriction causes all sorts of other adaptations, such as a posture to support that restricted movement that is likely to cause new muscle aches from a suboptimal way of standing or moving.

Some people may find relief in medication, others in manual therapy such as chiropractic. However, the benefits of such actions are often only temporary.

Research and practice suggest that such pain reduction is possible and immediately available if employers support three workplace practices: helping employees to understand what pain is; providing opportunities for staff to move about throughout the day; and supporting a simple, effective model of wellbeing awareness.

Understanding pain

Whether or not a person feels pain is based on a complex set of experiences happening in their brain, ranging from social context and how well the brain knows where they are in space to how much they reinforce a particular pain path. It is therefore highly unlikely that a single solution, such as a pill or an adjustment, will work for something so complex. These interventions may help temporarily, but they are not likely to be a complete solution for recurrent pain. 

One of the most common ways to treat chronic pain is for a sufferer to have someone else move them through, for example, massage, chiropractic adjustment or physiotherapy. This can offer temporary relief from the pain, ranging from hours to just minutes after each session. Being moved by someone else triggers thousands fewer neurons (signals to the brain) than if a person moves themself, and it is important to increase positive signals to the brain when dealing with pain.

When a person moves more, the number of nerves telling the body that they are moving and okay exceeds the number telling them they are in pain. The happy signals outnumber the pain signals and the brain tends to simmer down. Moving as much as possible without causing pain helps maintain that signal.

Supportive workplace environments

Employers can encourage staff to move around the workplace by designing environments that support frequent movement throughout the day. Research around sit/stand desks, for example, shows that the opportunity for staff to change position and reduce the time they are seated brings huge benefits in pain reduction. This does not mean replacing sitting with standing, but giving staff opportunities to move and change position. Sitting without interruption is one of the worst environments employers can create.

To reduce employee absence resulting from chronic pain, employers should disrupt staff from sitting every 20 minutes. 

Sit/stand desks are a great way to enable posture changes, but there are also plenty of simple, zero-cost options for employers to consider, such as encouraging staff to use the stairs rather than the lift, walk further to the toilet and conduct standing or walking meetings.

Movement snacks

Staff should also be encouraged to eat away from their desk. By supporting and encouraging employees to take ‘movement snacks’ throughout the day, employers can help to reduce chronic pain costs and improve creativity and work-effectiveness. 

And repeated movement in one direction often leads to problems, such as repetitive strain injuries (RSI). These include employees curling their fingers down to their computer keyboard and arching their wrists back. Employers can teach staff simple exercises to make their fingers and wrists move in different directions every day. This will improve their strength, reduce incidences of RSI and also, amazingly, bring cognitive benefits.

Eye movement

Another way employers can support employees’ movement is to encourage eye movement, such as changing focus by looking away from their computers. Eye movement is one of the least explored areas of active movement that can help reduce pain via connections in the mid-brain.

There are many easy eye drills that can help employees achieve benefits such as reduced stress and improved eyesight. Better visual response has been shown to improve work performance. 

The University of Southampton runs a 12-week challenge, called goFit, to provide a framework to connect employees with movement practices.

There are many approaches employers can use to increase movement awareness among staff and then test and assess the benefits of movement in their workplace environment. But first, employers have to commit to embedding wellbeing practices into their organisation’s culture.

MC Schraefel is professor of human performance and computer science, and director of the Human Performance Design Lab at the University of Southampton