Five ways to combat soaring musculoskeletal issues

By Claire Glynn | Head of Musculoskeletal Services
One in ten employees are now affected by a musculoskeletal (MSK) issue and one in three are struggling to cope because they don’t want to talk to their employer about their health.

Five ways to empower employees to reduce MSK-related absence

There are five key things employers need to bear in mind if they want to reduce absence and presenteeism linked to soaring musculoskeletal issues.

One in ten employees are now affected by a musculoskeletal (MSK) issue and one in three are struggling to cope because they don’t want to talk to their employer about their health.

With NHS waiting lists and GP delays making the situation even worse, hundreds of thousands of employees are simply not getting the support they need to recover or manage their condition to stay in work. As a result, over 23 million working days a year are now being lost in the UK due to MSK issues.

There is much that can be done to support people with issues ranging from back pain and repetitive strain injury to arthritis. The real issue is nipping problems in the bud.

Critical to this is reassuring employees that support services are there to help them, not to manage them out of the business, and empowering them to change behaviour. Claire Glynn, our head of musculoskeletal services, shares her top five tips.

1. Destigmatise the problem

Some people might not want to disclose a musculoskeletal injury for fear that this will imply they might struggle to do their job. Recent research found that a third of employees simply struggle because they don’t want to discuss their condition with their employer.

This can be particularly true of MSK conditions linked to an ageing workforce, such as arthritis and back pain, making destigmatising health conditions an important part of your diversity and inclusion agenda.

Start by educating employees about the support services in place and think about the messages you want to get across. To encourage them to come forward, make sure they know occupational health is there to help them stay in work, not to catch them out or make the case for managing them out of the business.

2. Support people before they go absent

Data published in The Benefits of Early Intervention Report shows absence can be slashed by two-thirds if employees are provided with access to support while they are still in work. Unfortunately, a third of managers wait until employees go absent before referring them to occupational health, and half of those wait until the employee has been off for over a month.

By this time, the chance of the employee being in work a month later has fallen from 91% (if they were referred while in work) to just 53%. It’s therefore essential that managers are encouraged to be aware of nuances within their team and notice if someone goes from being productive to struggling or having sporadic absences.

Managers should be educated how to take people to one side and ask specific questions, such as: “I noticed you’re limping” or “You seem to be struggling with your hand,” so they can then also encourage people to use the support services in place.

3. Empower employees to help themselves

Some employees will remain reluctant to disclose their condition or use the support services if directed to do so by work. It can therefore be a good idea to put in place a free helpline, such as our Physio Information Line (PhIL), so they can talk to an expert physiotherapist for free in confidence.

Employees who are able to refer themselves are not only more likely to reach out for support sooner, they’re also more engaged and more likely to put their treatment plan into action. This means they’re also more likely to recover before they go off sick or their performance starts to suffer.

A barrier to employers putting this approach in place is that they want to keep hold of the purse strings by only referring those in desperate need of support. Unfortunately, at a time when the NHS is struggling, this means employees don’t get the rapid access to support they need, meaning they’re more likely to go absent, costing the employer more in the long run.

4. Encourage positive peer pressure

As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure, so make sure someone is accountable for each workstation, whether it’s a desk or a checkout. By ensuring it’s ergonomically set up, employees are less likely to develop MSK issues in the first place.

It’s also good to make employees accountable for their own health. Workshops, webinars, lunch-and-learns can all be used as short, sharp educational opportunities to empower people to look after themselves. As most people find it liberating to discover they can take responsibility for their own health.

Body-mapping workshops, where groups of employees doing similar roles put dots on a map of a body to indicate where they have niggles or pain or injuries can also be useful. It will inspire discussion on where common issues are and encourage employees to share tips on ways of working and protective equipment that they find helps to inspire behaviour change.

5. Put in place reasonable adjustments

GPs alone cannot be expected to understand what someone’s workplace is like enough to say what they can still do. This means a third of ‘fit notes’ end up signing people off for four weeks or more, by which time 20% never return.

This has now resulted in record numbers of people falling out of the workforce due to long-term sickness. A record 2.58m people are now recorded as economically inactive by the ONS due to illness, a figure that has risen by 449,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Instead of allowing people to fall out of the workforce like this, employers can work with occupational health clinicians to identify what reasonable adjustments can be made to keep someone in work, even after they’ve been signed off sick by their GP. Not only is this good for business, but it’s also good for employees, many of whom want to continue working and earning and contributing to society, but need appropriate support to do so.

Want to empower your people to look after themselves?

Our self-referral digital service allows employees to proactively contact our Physio Information Line (PhIL) themselves. Benefits include:

  • Immediate access to a qualified clinical expert to diagnose a condition
  • Expert advice on ‘next steps’ the employee can take to improve symptoms
  • Ongoing liaison with employee to encourage self-care and alleviate any worries
  • Majority of employees helped to stay in work or achieve return to fitness
  • Employees with more severe problems signposted for further diagnostics/treatment

We can also provide educaton and training for employees and managers on how to reduce the risk of MSK issues and absence related to this.

Contact us to set up a free consultation to discuss your organisation’s particular needs.

If you would like to see how our PhIL platform works in practice, please email to set up a free demo.

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