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Musculoskeletal disorders and the UK workforce

ByDave Stopher

Oct 20, 2018

Musculoskeletal conditions affect a person’s bones, joints and muscles. Sadly, many of the adult population are affected by musculoskeletal conditions and this can massively impact their quality of life. Employers must therefore consider how their own staff are affected by these sorts of conditions and what they can do to help.

If you want to boost morale and productivity, then you must consider how to help any staff that have this condition. One study, carried out by the HSE (Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain), discovered that 507,000 workers suffered from a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (new or long-standing) in 2016/17.

But, what can be done? Explore preventative actions you can take to stop these types of disorders worsening because of work-related activities.

Musculoskeletal disorders and your staff

Work can be tough for people with these conditions. Did you know that one in four of the UK adult population are affected by musculoskeletal disorders? Based on data gathered in 2016/17, 45% of musculoskeletal disorders are to do with the upper limbs or neck, 38% to do with the back, and 17% involve the lower limbs. Out of sufferers within working age (16-64), 59.4% are employed. Although there is actually a decline of musculoskeletal disorders, it remains a problem.

Be aware that absenteeism can rise if you have staff with musculoskeletal disorders. In fact, 30 million working days were lost due to these conditions in 2016 which can be costly for employers. Based on calculations that consider the average UK salary and a working day of 7.5 hours, an individual sick day can cost an employer £107.85 if the worker receives full sick pay. There is also the cost of work being covered, perhaps this is by another employee who then can’t do their own work.

How to assist those with these conditions

Chances are, if you’re an employer, you will eventually take on someone with these conditions. So, what can you do to make work more enjoyable for employees and reduce the number of sick days taken by those who simply can’t work at times?

Flexible working

Even if an employee comes to work and keeps sick days to a minimum, they may not be able to work to their potential. Nearly 40% of public sector workers and 26% of private sector workers have experienced this in their own workplace according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics). Presenteeism often occurs because an employee is afraid to call in sick out of fear of being penalised by their employer. One way to address this for sufferers of musculoskeletal disorders is to provide them with the option to work from home.

Musculoskeletal pain can spike if a person has to take a long commute to work or get on and off buses or trains. Instead, why not let your employees stay at home where they may feel more comfortable and can get on with their work? This might reduce lost productivity time that may occur if they come into work.

Treatment appointments will also help to alleviate the issue, and are easier to keep if people can work from home. It’s also easier for them to make up for lost hours in their own time. Perhaps their rehabilitation centre is closer to home than it is for work, and less time may be spent getting to and from their sessions than if they were travelling from the company.

Kit and equipment

Does your workplace offer the right equipment for people with these disorders? Examples of kit include:

  • Standing desks — standing upright may be more comfortable than sitting for a prolonged period.
  • Lifting help — assistance with heavy lifting can be useful. A trolley can help employees transport items.
  • Ergonomic keyboards — sufferers of musculoskeletal disorders can find using a keyboard, mouse or pen difficult. Lower the chances of repetitive strain injury by searching for ergonomic options.
  • Other kit — chat to staff to discover other types of specialist equipment that might be helpful.


For those with knee joint pain and other issues relating to musculoskeletal conditions, therapy can help lower the intensity of pain in your employees. It’s important to reduce stress in the workplace, particularly if you have employees that suffer from musculoskeletal conditions. There is a clear link between musculoskeletal disorders, mental health and work loss. In fact, depression is four times more common amongst people in persistent pain compared to those without pain. Ensuring that all employees have someone to talk to if they are feeling under pressure is important and encouraging positive energy throughout the workforce with social events can also help. If employees are feeling extra stress, it could be worth looking into hiring extra staff or referring workers for therapy for example.

Yoga isn’t just for celebrities. Encourage workers to participate in this exercise through organised classes within break times or after work, or through funding the classes. Although expensive, it’s possible that this extra exercise will help manage pain levels and reduce sick days.

How else can you support staff?

Bosses that care often get the best out of their staff. What else can you do to improve life for staff with musculoskeletal disorders?

  • Spot the issue early: this allows for you to intervene early and get measures in place that will encourage the employee to return to work ASAP.
  • Improve communication: this way, appropriate changes can be made at work, which can encourage workers to come to you with problems and suggestions.
  • Create a ‘return-to-work’ programme: this reduces the risk of staff taking a long period of sick leave through appropriate adjustments in their working environment.

Preventing sick days

Don’t make existing pain and injuries worse. 507,000 workers suffered from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) (new or long-standing) in 2016/17. Because of this, 8.9 million working days were lost to WRMSDs in the UK in this time period — accounting for 35% of all working days lost. Construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing, and transportation and storage all have higher than average rates of workers with musculoskeletal disorders. Research also found that WRMSDs are more prevalent in males.

WRMSDs happen in tasks that involve:

  • Repeating the same movements.
  • Fixed body positions.
  • Forcing concentration on certain parts of the body (e.g. hands or wrists).
  • Not having sufficient recovery between movements. To help, you should encourage staff to take breaks at least once every hour.

Musculoskeletal disorders can really affect a person and their ability to work efficiently. Employers must take action to help employees through specialist equipment, the option of working from home, and potentially funding complementary therapy. They should also recognise if their employees are at risk of WRMSDs and take appropriate preventative measures.

Author bio

Lee Dover is a senior copywriter at Mediaworks with an interest in healthcare as well as researching into healthier ways of living. He has a BA (Hons) in Magazine Journalism.





State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017 report — Arthritis Research UK