Did you know that back pain is the second most common cause of long-term sickness in the UK after stress? In fact, around 7.6 million working days were lost due to work-related back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders from 2010 to 2011 and, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), almost 31 million hours of work were lost last year alone as a direct result of back, neck and muscle disorders. They also concluded that musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions accounted for more prolonged absences than any other ailment.
Although the UK workforce has largely swapped heavy manual labour for sitting in offices, MSKs have been the primary cause of absenteeism for the past five years and the UK has one of the highest rates in Europe. This clearly has an impact on profitability; it has been estimated that MSK pain costs the EU economy approximately 240bn euros (£200bn) every year.
So what’s the problem? Why, in an age when we are supposed to be more aware than ever of how our bodies work and, more importantly, how to keep them fit and healthy, is this an increasing problem?
Most of us will have back pain at some point in our lives and although painful, in most cases the pain usually clears up after about six weeks. However, for some, the damage is more permanent and can result in long term absence from work.
“People forget how common musculoskeletal problems are,” Prof Anthony Woolf, a rheumatologist at the Royal Cornwall Hospital has recently stated, ” With around 30% of all disability in the UK being due to these conditions.”
The most common causes of back pain are strained muscles or ligaments, wear and tear, and are often caused by bad posture and stress. As we spend more time sitting – often in the wrong way on the wrong type of chair – than ever before, it’s not surprising that our bodies are starting to suffer.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” explains Prof Steve Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation, “The more sedentary you are the worse it is for your health.”
Offices, it turns out, can be harmful environments.
While there are still significant numbers of employees carrying out physical and manual labour, involving heavy lifting or awkward movement, improvements in workplace conditions and stricter health and safety legislation has helped reduce the amount of injuries incurred in those jobs.
No such legislation has been applied to “sitting” however, and the majority of deskbound workers fail to adequately address their health risks, often dismissing the “work station assessment officer” as an unnecessary inconvenience. As a result, preventative measures, such as keeping chairs, desks and computers at the right height, are often neglected.
Furthermore, when the warning symptoms start to appear, people are often slow to react, but quick, effective action can reap positive rewards. A recently completed two-year trial in Madrid showed that the timely and accurate assessment and treatment of 13,000 workers with MSKs who had been off work for five days or more, lead to their time off work being reduced by 39% in the long term. The Work Foundation estimates that more than 60,000 Britons would be available for work if the Madrid tactics were replicated in the UK.
Even the most careful among us are at risk of MSKs; indeed, alarm bells have been ringing for some time over the impact of musculoskeletal diseases.
“I describe suffering from musculoskeletal disorders as being like a Ferrari without wheels,” says Prof Woolf, who is also the chair of Bone and Joint Decade. “If you don’t have mobility and dexterity, it doesn’t matter how healthy the rest of your body is.”
And it’s not just your back that’s at risk. The onset of a persistent back condition is likely to have a negative impact on the rest of your body too. Having an MSK also dramatically increases the likelihood of suffering from depression, says the Work Foundation. And according to the ONS, depression accounts for the third largest amount of missed work days in the UK – 15 million.
It seems that taking good care of your back means you are taking good care of your body as a whole and as we always say “good chairs make good backs”. So it’s worth taking a good look at what you’re sitting on and thinking about how it makes you feel.