Is Work the Cure for Back Pain and Other Ailments?

Instead of ordering employees with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) to stay home all day, the best thing doctors can do to improve their patients' health is to send them back to work, according to a recent report published in the United Kingdom. According to the report, returning to work will increase the emplooyees' chances of recovering more quickly.

Researchers from the Work Foundation – a U.K.-based non-profit organization that released “Fit for Work: Musculoskeletal Disorders and Labor Market Participation” – suggest that the mental health benefits for workers suffering from musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, back pain, work-related upper-limb disorders and other health-related problems outweigh staying home to recuperate. In addition to helping injured employees, returning to work would help boost productivity and reduce the 2.6 million people in the United Kingdom who are on disability.

“There is overwhelming evidence that worklessness is, itself, bad for health,” the report stated.

According to the report, people affected by an MSD also are likely to have mental health problems as well. The chances of a swift return to work after an MSD-related absence increases if employees have a positive attitude and support from employers and family.

Employers Need to Understand MSD Worker Pain

“Work can be both cause and cure,” says Michelle Mahdon, senior researcher with the Work Foundation. “It may cause or aggravate symptoms of MSDs, but evidence is amassing that with the right support arrangements, work can also be part of the recovery by contributing to a person’s self-esteem and sense of being productive.”

What needs to change, says Mahdon, is the misconception that an employee suffering from an MSD needs to be 100 percent well before returning to work. “Too many [employers] see only incapacity rather than capacity,” she says.

Some of the recommendations made in the report include:
Early intervention: Long periods away from work usually are bad for patients. Partnerships between patient and employer can achieve a balance between an individual’s need for rest and recuperation and the need to work.
Better job design: Managers can change the ways work is organized – from adjusting working time and altering task allocation to improving ergonomics.
Enhanced measurement of direct and indirect costs of MSDs: Much better mechanisms to assess and monitor the social and work impact of MSDs are needed.

The full report, "Fit for Work: Musculoskeletal Disorders and Labor Market Participation," can be downloaded at http://www.theworkfoundation.com/products/publications/azpublications/fitforwork.aspx.

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