Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for just over a third (35%) of work-related ill health in the UK in 2017/18. A massive 6.6 million sick days were accrued as a result of MSDs.

MSDs refer to injuries and disorders that affect a person’s movement or their musculoskeletal system, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs, blood vessels, etc.).

Common MSDs include:

• Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
• Tendonitis
• Muscle / Tendon strain
• Ligament Sprain
• Tension Neck Syndrome
• Ruptured / Herniated Disc
• Repetitive Strain Injury
• Osteoarthritis
• Varicose Veins
• Back Pain
• Tennis Elbow
• and many more.

Most MSDs lie in the neck, back and upper limbs (92%).

Although the number of reported cases is slowly declining, MSDs are still a significant cause of sickness among the working age population. It is also a problem that can be seen across all industries. Physically active jobs do see a higher rate of injury, but office-based roles are also problematic. MSDs are caused through hard manual work, incorrect positioning, long periods of working at keyboards, sedentary jobs and repetitive actions.

It’s clear that irrespective of industry, businesses need to take this aspect of employee health seriously. Unfortunately, recent research reveals that potentially, quite the opposite is happening. Employees do not feel that their health and wellbeing, when it comes to MSDs, is being given enough priority.

The uncomfortable truth

The vast majority of office workers reportedly spend between four to nine hours a day sitting at their desks. This equates to 67 seated days a year. Employees are not unaware of the risks of such sedentary jobs, or the negative impact of repetitive actions and manual work. In fact, around two thirds believe their working environment impacts negatively on their health. Another study, carried out by Home Leisure Direct, found that 90% of respondents believed a healthy workplace was ‘fundamental’ to their work-life balance.

The disquieting statistics come when researchers asked about employer attitudes. A hugely significant 97% of staff felt that their workspace was representative of how management valued them (Management Today). Yet almost half of those polled by Home Leisure Direct did not believe their employer cared abouttheir wellbeing. The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) found that 40% of respondents felt that they couldn’t get up and walk around regularly when working in the office. Only 6% reported that they were encouraged to spend time away from their desks and just a fifth had been offered a desk and seating assessment or ergonomic equipment. Business need to do more to demonstrate that they value their employee’s health and wellbeing.

The impact of MSDs on business and the economy is clear – 6.6 million sick days is a lot of lost revenue and productivity. Organisations that offer a comprehensive health and wellbeing package see the benefits throughout an employee’s life cycle.

As the desire for a positive work-life balance becomes increasingly important, an organisation’s approach to employee health and wellbeing is coming under increased scrutiny during the recruitment process. Home Leisure Direct found that 65% of respondents would consider moving companies if offered a better office environment.

Practical Solutions

MSDs are not a new issue, and there are many tried and tested practical ways that organisations can support their employee’s physical wellbeing:

1. Get Active – First and foremost, get active. Whatever the employee role, getting up and walking about, taking a break from repetitive work or a moment to stretch, will have a hugely positive impact on overall health.

2. Break out – While 42% of staff had no break-out area in their office, 70% said they would benefit from one. Providing a welcoming gathering space, somewhere to meet and chat, sit and eat lunch, or just read the paper.

3. Evaluate – Carry out assessments of work stations to ensure that computer screens and keyboards are properly positioned. Check that chairs are the correct height and adjusted to offer support and promote good posture.

4. Sight test – Check the lighting. Is there enough natural light in the office? If not, are the electric lights in the right places and at the right angles? Can employees see without squinting? Consider lighting throughout the working day – what about shadows, reflections, flickering lights and glare? These can all cause individuals to take up awkward positions.

5. The right tool – Do employees have the right tools for the job? Can seats, computer stands and desk surfaces be raised or lowered as required?

6. Repetition – Sometimes it simply can’t be avoided, some jobs are repetitive. But consider ways of breaking down the workload to provide respite from repetitive tasks. When they can’t be broken up with other jobs, ensure regular breaks are taken.

One of the key points to come across from the above research is that in too many cases employees do not feel that their physical wellbeing is prioritised by their employer. This is concerning given that employers have a legal duty of care to ensure healthy working environments and practices.

It is possible that this is more about a break down in internal communications than neglectful management. It does, however, underly the need for organisations to ensure that their staff understand their rights and feel able to voice concerns over working environment.

Show you care

• Produce a formal health and wellbeing policy
• Promote and encourage an effort to achieve best practice in this area
• Carry out regular workplace evaluations
• Implement practical solutions, like those listed above
• Actively engage with staff to hear and respond to concerns

All the above will demonstrate that the organisation takes this issue seriously and truly values the health and wellbeing of their employees. This is a win-win scenario for any organisation. Many MSDs can be prevented or minimised with just a little bit of forethought and minor adaptions and any costs will be far outweighed by improved productivity, reduced sickness levels and increased employee loyalty.