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May 9, 2016

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Don’t ignore the aches and pains – musculoskeletal conditions can hurt your business


By Jan Vickery, Head of Clinical Operations for AXA PPP healthcare

Many people haven’t heard of the term ‘musculoskeletal’ but it’s a word that can mean a big headache for employers of all sizes. According to the Office for National Statistics, back, neck and other musculoskeletal problems cause more work absence in the UK than any other medical condition, accounting for 30.6 million (23 per cent) of the 131 million lost work days in 2013.1 They are also the UK’s leading cause of long term sickness absence, accounting for a third of absence spells of four or more weeks.2

Musculoskeletal pain can affect the muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones and those who experience it may feel as though they’ve been stretched, strained or overworked to the limit. As an employer, it is important to take a proactive approach to managing the musculoskeletal health of your workforce and, to meet your statutory duty to protect employee safety and health, it is crucial to have in place suitable policies, practices and procedures to ensure that the risks your workplace poses to your employees’ musculoskeletal health are properly assessed and addressed. Attentive management of workplace risks will help to prevent problems but if, despite your best efforts, they should arise early assessment by a suitably trained OH specialist or physiotherapist and referral for suitable (evidence based) treatment (be it self-guided management, physiotherapy or other manual therapies or specialist care) can go a long way to lessening the threat of musculoskeletal conditions on your business.


Safeguarding employees’ musculoskeletal health is a responsibility that safety and health professionals who advise employers simply cannot afford to overlook. While management of musculoskeletal risks may not be high up the corporate agenda, investment in proactively managing them is well worth it. To encourage employers to help their workforces to avoid musculoskeletal problems, here are some simple but essential actions you can recommend.

  1. Ensure that all the organisation’s employees are properly inducted to understand and maintain ‘work safe’ posture and behaviour. In many workplaces today (especially those based on ‘knowledge working’) employees may be sedentary for long periods – circumstances that can put them at increased risk of developing musculoskeletal problems. It is therefore imperative to ensure that their workstations are assessed and adjusted to be made safe for individual employees’ use and that employees who use them are encouraged to take regular breaks.
  2. For VDU users, employers should ensure that screens are suitably adjusted and desks and seating are safely configured. Safety and health and OH professionals are well placed to provide the necessary information and advice to help employers to introduce ‘musculoskeletal safe’ working practices and procedures. The Health and Safety Executive’s online Toolkit for MSDs3 is another valuable source of information and guidance. Employers should also remember that employees who have been with them for some time may have slipped into bad habits and, for them, a refresher course on good musculoskeletal hygiene may be helpful.
  3. Employers can also provide employees with information on exercises and other activities to maintain good musculoskeletal health – for example, AXA PPP healthcare’s online resource Exercises for a healthy back4 is readily accessible. Could you encourage your employer to host some group exercises or hold a lunchtime walking group or yoga class to get people moving or stretching?
  4. Driving can be a strain on the neck and back – especially if done for long periods of time. Can you promote company incentive schemes to encourage employees to walk or cycle to work? This also has the benefit of increasing activity and fitness levels.

Employers can also do a number of things to support employees suffering from musculoskeletal conditions. It is, of course, important to try to establish how the problem arose in the first place and to identify and address any workplace risks that may have led to or exacerbated it. Again, to do this, it may be helpful to employ the services of safety and health or OH professionals experienced in troubleshooting workplace health risks. As a part of this assessment, it is critical to review the tasks the employee does on a daily basis as they may hold the key to understanding their problem. Could they, for example, make a concerted effort to improve their posture or use a standing desk to prevent or alleviate back or upper limb pain associated with slouching? Could they be encouraged to take regular breaks? Could more repetitive tasks be re-engineered or shared with workmates?

Finally, if an employee is coming back work after having time off with a musculoskeletal condition, employers should make sure they are well supported on their return. There may be psychological problems associated with having had a musculoskeletal condition where there may be little or no physical evidence of having been ill. Employees should not be made to feel stigmatised for having taken time off with a musculoskeletal problem and, to help to avoid this, it is important to ensure that the workforce is made aware of the nature and potential seriousness of musculoskeletal problems and of the company’s commitment to helping employees to deal with them.

150612 Jan Vickery Head of Musculoskeletal Services AXA PPP healthcare

By Jan Vickery, Head of Clinical Operations for AXA PPP healthcare


1 Office for National Statistics (2014). Sickness absence in the labour market: February 2014:

2 Daniel Foster (2014). Long Term Sickness Absence in the UK, Analysis of the Labour Force Survey, October 2010 – September 2013. Department for Work and Pensions:

3 Health and Safety Executive. Toolkit for MSDs:

4  AXA PPP healthcare (2013). Exercises for a healthy back:—bones—joints/exercises-for-a-healthy-back/

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Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
7 years ago

All very well applying the “nudge” principal to the campaign but, what about the New 2012 EU MSD Directive ?? Surely, if industry hadn’t worked so hard to delay it’s ratification, we would already had two years to introduce an up-dated 1993 DSE regulations by 2014 and another two years to implement more effective legislation to replace the original failed UK interpretation of the 1990 EU Directive ? (HSE Better Display Screen RR 561 2007) 14001 discusses the concept of exposure and, of course, the risk of over-exposure to a stress or strain, initially manifesting in an RSi type of… Read more »