Wellbeing and managing musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions

Musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions are a leading cause of workplace sickness, set to get worse with more home working and changes to working practices as local authorities respond to their communities’ needs during the coronavirus pandemic. 

We have been working with NHS colleagues at the Health Innovation Network (the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) for south London) to offer the Joint Pain Advice (JPA) model of care which enables people to better self-manage their chronic joint pain.  

The Impact of MSK on work

Work has generally become physically less demanding through advances in technology and automation, but musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions increasingly affect our population, our workforce and our businesses.

Along with mental health, poor MSK health accounts for most of the sickness absence in the UK. It is estimated that 9.5 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to MSK conditions which affect over 10 million people.

Local government employees have an average of almost 9 fte days of sickness per year for each employee (Local Government Association Workforce Survey 2017/18). Stress is the biggest reason for this absence (27 per cent of these days) and MSK conditions are the next biggest cause – 15 per cent of all time off.  Evidence shows that there is a link between stress, depression and anxiety and physical health, so much of this sickness absence will be linked and explains why MSK is the second biggest cause of disability in the world. 

The role of the employer in managing MSK issues

The workplace offers a unique opportunity to prevent the development of MSK conditions and to slow the deterioration of health caused by MSK problems.

Many of the conditions that affect bones, joints and muscles can and do impact working life. Importantly, the conditions of working life have an impact on the prevention, development and effects of these conditions. Employers and employees have a shared interest in preventing these problems when they can and alleviating and accommodating the effects as they emerge.

There are steps all organisations can take, regardless of size, to prevent employees developing MSK conditions and support those with MSK conditions to stay in or return to work. Employers can help their employees to learn how to look after their MSK health and work around any problems they have.

The impact of changes at work on MSK

There has been about a seven million hours decrease in the amount of working time lost to MSK problems over the past 10 years as employers have come to understand it better, are more aware of it, and have been taking it seriously. However, we know that the measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have impacted on our employee’s mental and physical health. 

Two key aspects of maintaining MSK health are physical activity and maintaining good mental health. However, the ability to be active is likely to have been restricted and employees’ mental health is likely to have been affected by the anxiety around the pandemic generally, together with concerns about their own or their family’s health as well as the effects of social isolation.

The Institute for Employment Studies’ Working at Home Wellbeing Survey, carried out during the early stages of the lockdown, found that more than half of the survey respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58 per cent), shoulder (56 per cent) and back (55 per cent), compared to their normal physical condition. 

Local authorities have undertaken electronic risk assessments for staff who are remote working or taking on new work on the front line and have been able to put in place some reasonable and practical measures where employees are in less than ideal working environments. 

However, many of these measures are likely to be temporary and our duty of care to our employees means that local authorities will need to start looking at longer-term targeted interventions for staff with pre-existing or new conditions. 

For employers this means a need for improved engagement with existing mental health and wellbeing activity to better identify support requirements and target interventions appropriately. 

A wellbeing approach to managing MSK conditions

The LGA is working with NHS colleagues in the Health Innovation Network (HIN) to offer a wellbeing approach to supporting employees who have musculoskeletal conditions. 

Joint Pain Advice (JPA) supports people to understand and manage their chronic knee, hip and back pain. Based on National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines, the model of care focuses on supporting self-management.

The HIN can work with employers to look at what the intervention looks like in your workplace according to your employees’ and your organisational needs. 

Next steps and more information

Email them on hin.jointpainadvice@nhs.net

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