Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are overwhelmingly the largest cause of workplace sickness and absenteeism in the UK.

In 2016 MSDs accounted for 41% of the total work-related illnesses according to a recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report. This equates to around 8.8 million working days, or 34% of all working days lost due to illness.

However, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, found that 53% of MSDs treated by GPs were sustained outside of the workplace. When injuries occur in the workplace the employer must ensure that adequate treatment is provided for their staff member. However, according to the government run, Fit for Work initiative, employers are not responsible for injuries received outside of the working environment.

This presents something of a conundrum for organisations as the negative impact on any business when an employee is on long-term sick leave is clear.

Wherever the injury occurred employers are responsible for covering sick-leave. MSDs can become long-term issues and encouraging staff back too soon can result in presenteeism. This is the presence of staff who are not really fit for work, resulting in poor productivity and a slower rehabilitation period.

Currently, after GP referral, NHS waiting lists for an initial physiotherapy appointment can be anywhere between 2 and 6 weeks in the West Midlands. The longer MSDs are left untreated the higher the risk that they will become chronic.

In small, highly efficient organisations, the absence of a single member of staff can mean hiring expensive temporary support, and other employees may be overstretched as they try to cover the workload. While most businesses can sustain a few sick days here and there, few are able to cope with the average three working weeks in MSD cases.

It can work out more cost-effective for the employer to offer as much support as possible to help speed up the recovery process. There are many steps organisations can consider in order to help:

  • Paying fully or partially for private access to physiotherapy – The number of physiotherapy appointments required will vary on a case by case basis, but the sooner treatment begins the sooner the problem can be resolved.
  • Keep in contact – Maintaining regular contact with absent employees is essential. Getting the balance right is also important. Being pressurised into ‘getting well’ usually has the exact opposite effect.
  • Keep them in the loop – Be mindful of the fact that for many people being stuck at home resting can be a miserable experience. A person’s career is put on hold, their social life is restricted and they will fall behind in workplace progress. Providing updates and keeping absent staff abreast of workplace news can help them feel more connected while away and aid them in settling back in when they return.
  • Easing back in – After a long period of absence a gradual reintroduction to work is often best. Options to consider may be reduced hours or an option for home working or flexible working.
  • Adapt –  In some cases employees may no longer be able to carry out the same roles as before, either during a period of recovery or permanently. Take time to meet with and discuss options with them prior to their return to work.
  • Be open – Practicing an honest and open relationship with employees will empower them to come to you with concerns about their sickness or return to work. A good foundation built on mutual respect and trust will be a positive starting point should injuries occur in or out of the workplace.

It is also worth re-visiting your workplace policies on prevention of MSDs. Although they more commonly occur out of the workplace, they regularly occur at, or can be exacerbated by the workplace. For more information on how employers can support their staff in the self-management of MSDs see our previous article.

Providing the right tools for the job, encouraging a healthy working environment and good management-staff relationships are great steps towards managing the causes and effects of MSDs in the workplace.