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Peter Crush

Freelance Journalist

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Positive moves: Dealing with the back pain epidemic

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Lord Sugar may have mocked Tom Pellereau when he presented his plans for an office chair designed to alleviate back pain.

But the Apprentice winner knew what many employers have been forced to learn: the crippling cost of back problems for both staff and the business.

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According to the Health and Safety Executive, work-related back complaints are a pain that is just not getting any better. Diagnoses of problems in the area have been rising consistently for the last 30 years – ever since workers swapped getting up, moving around and talking to people for sitting down, staring at computer screens and sending emails.
 
Registered osteopath Katie Nunn, who is involved with HSF Health Plan‘s new Health at Work initiative, explains: “I’ve been practicing for 26 years, just, in fact, as PCs were rolling out into the workplace. Back then, I hardly treated anyone with posture and work-related back problems. Now, they account for 50% of my referrals.”
 
Between 2006 and 2008/9, the number of days lost to work-related back pain has more than doubled from 4.5 million days, which cost employers £335 million, to 9.3 million a year. Staggeringly, at any one time, 1% of the entire working population is on sick leave as a result of back issues.
 
Such pain is officially the second-most common reason for long-term sickness absence in the UK and each year, GPs see seven million patients with it, the condition only being trumped by people suffering from the common cold. What this means is that, all told, a huge 80% of employees will be off work at some point in their lives due to back-related problems.
 
But with Back Care Awareness Week taking place from 17 to 23 October, employers are once more being urged to take a more proactive stance on the matter.
 
Sickness absence
 
Nunn explains: “In my experience, employers are still only helping their staff once problems occur. Although the Health and Safety Executive has done a great job promoting workstation assessments, many bosses still don’t proactively ensure staff are sitting in the correct way.”
 
But reacting after the event is often too late. On average, each person who starts having remedial treatment (whether a medical intervention or physiotherapy) for back pain will take an average of 17.3 days off work per year.
 
Of all the time lost to back problems, half relates to the 85% of people who take less than seven days off. The remaining 15% of workers are disproportionately responsible for the rest.
 
Lynne Robinson, Pilates coach to among others, the Chelsea football squad, and founder of Body Control Pilates, says: “The thing HR directors often don’t realise is that most back-pain is what medical professionals call the ‘non-specific’ variety. This is referred to as general back discomfort, but is not necessarily set off by any one thing alone and is difficult to pinpoint for treatment.”
 
In fact, she argues that back pain is often the result of other problems that many bosses might not immediately pick up on.
 
“Sure, while neck and shoulder aches – which may well be caused by a PC monitor being at the wrong height – is a major cause of back problems, there are many other, less known reasons too,” she says. “Being overweight is a contributing factor, while things like stress are significantly misunderstood. Stress causes inflammation of body tissues that are already susceptible.”
 
To coincide with Back Care Awareness Week, Robinson is launching a ‘Back4Good’ course of exercise, which uses Pilates techniques in the management of back pain.
 
More proactive approach
 
But she warns: “Workplaces have changed. They have encouraged people not to move about. One of the best preventative measures for back pain is to keep the back active. Just walking to work, strengthens core muscles. Once people are at work, the last thing they should do is sit down.”
 
Even ergonomically-designed workstations are of limited use because the body is” just not designed to stay sitting” as it puts pressure on the lower back. “People need to be encouraged to get up more, move around, which releases pressure, but just keeps the back mobile,” Robinson says.
 
But shifting work practices such as the increasing move to home-working are also not helping matters. She observes that home computers are all too often set-up in makeshift areas of the home or reside on unsuitable furniture such as dining tables rather than properly tested workstations.
 
As a result, both experts believe that employers need to take a more proactive approach to fostering, ideally, a culture of prevention– or at least early intervention – before the situation turns more serious.
 
Research from Keele University, which was recently published in medical journal, The Lancet, revealed that targeted treatment – that is physiotherapist advice for ‘low-risk’ patients; actual physiotherapy for ‘medium-risk’ patients; and physiotherapy and psychological help for ‘high-risk’ patients – lead to much better long-term results than the more traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ GP-led referrals.
 
Lead researcher professor Elaine Hay at Keele University, says: "The problem for GPs and other health professionals is spotting who, amongst the patients they see with back pain, is likely to get better with simple advice and reassurance and who might benefit from further treatment from a physiotherapist."
 
Companies that do have proactive health screening and cover for policies see the benefit of it almost right away, however. Only a few years ago, for example, Royal Mail had a 7% sickness absence level, which cost it £1million a day. Within three years of introducing health clinics and screening offered by professionals at 90 sites, absence rates were nearly halved to 4.5%.
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Peter Crush

Freelance Journalist

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