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MSDs: the case for catching them early

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The UK loses 31m working days a year to MSDs. They may have a lower public profile than stress, but the same economic and human impact. Investing in reducing their impact could provide substantial payback.


Despite the many positive signs of economic recovery we have seen in the UK, labour productivity remains stubbornly low. At The Work Foundation it has long been our contention that measures to improve the health and wellbeing of the UK workforce have a significant contribution to make to improve productivity and performance, if only we were to take it seriously.

Our research has focused on the impact of mental illness, chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on sickness absence, ‘presenteeism’ (coming to work when ill) and early ill-health retirement, and the data we have produced is compelling. Our Fit for Work initiative – with a focus on MSDs – has identified that the UK loses almost 31m working days through back pain, upper limb disorders and other conditions such as arthritis. To put this in context, this is more days per year than were lost through strike action in 1978/79 – the winter of discontent.

Across the EU as a whole, 44m workers have MSDs caused by their work and they account for almost half of all sickness absence. To make matters worse, the longer a musculoskeletal condition goes without being treated, the greater the risk of developing what is called a co-morbid mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety. This happens in up to 30% of cases and can increase healthcare costs and prolong absence from work.

One of the solutions to this problem – aside from continued vigilance over the risks of workplace injury and strain – is early intervention. Here we have found that, if GPs use the Fit Note appropriately and if employers – especially line managers – refer employees early for occupational health assessments, most people with most severe MSDs can avoid prolonged absence and remain productive at work. The government’s new Fit for Work Service will, we hope, also improve early access to treatment and rehabilitation for employees with MSDs.

Compared with stress at work, MSDs have a lower public profile but have at least the same economic and human impact. A healthy workforce is a productive workforce, so the ‘payback’ from investments in early interventions to reduce their impact is likely to be substantial.

Professor Stephen Bevan is the director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness, The Work Foundation.

 

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