It is estimated that some eight million UK adults suffer from chronic back pain, costing the economy around £10bn year. Back Care Awareness Week (October 7-11) is an opportunity for employers to reflect on how they can better support the health and wellbeing of sedentary workers and promote behaviour change to encourage more active lifestyles.
Employee health and wellbeing – putting your back into back pain
October 7-11, is Back Pain Week, also known as Back Care Awareness Week, run by the charity Backcare. It is an opportunity for employers to revisit and refresh health promotion and education around back care and back pain management, both for sedentary office-based workers and for those stuck behind the wheel for long hours.
Technically, this year’s Back Pain Week will focus on back pain in golf, where low back injuries account for 15.2% to 34% of all golf injuries. Anyone who has followed Tiger Woods’ return to the sport following chronic back problems – in his case very much an “occupational” injury - will be only too well aware of the challenges back pain can present in this context.
But acute and chronic back pain is, of course, a much wider challenge than just the golf course. This makes Back Pain Week a great opportunity for employers to revisit their health promotion, education and intervention in this area more generally.
Moderate to severely disabling
The scale of this health and wellbeing problem is significant. Last year, for example, the 2018 Pain Index compiled by pain therapist Liebscher & Bracht concluded a high proportion of workers reported pain in their lower back, followed by pain in the neck, shoulder and knee.
Its survey of 8,000 chronic pain sufferers found that almost two-thirds of women experienced lower back pain, compared to 55% of men, with retail workers and labourers the most at risk.
The British Pain Society, meanwhile, has estimated that approximately eight million adults in the UK report chronic pain that is moderate to severely disabling. Back pain alone accounts for 40% of sickness absence in the NHS and overall it costs the UK economy £10bn a year, it has calculated.
The perils of overly sedentary working and leisure lives have been well documented on this site. The value of encouraging office workers to become more active is also well-recognised – perhaps taking the stairs rather than the lift, getting up to hold a conversation rather than sending yet another email, getting off a stop earlier on your commute to walk the remainder of the way and so on.
Equally, sit-stand desks are becoming a more commonplace sight in UK workplaces, and more accepted. Standing, and even walking, meetings may be less common but are nevertheless gradually gaining in popularity.
It is not just office workers, however, that employers need to be focusing on. Those who drive for work have little option but to spend long periods sitting down, and therefore may also benefit from proactive health and wellbeing advice and support around back and neck pain, good posture and taking breaks.
To that end, Backcare has a range of online resources that employers may find useful. These include practical exercises workers can undertake, with one for office workers and one for people driving for work.
The NHS’s advice sheet can also be found here, while the Health and Safety Executive’s resource page can be found here. Optima Health, too, offers a range of physiotherapy videos and resources that can help.
Ultimately, as Optima Health Professional Head of Musculoskeletal Health Cabella Lowe makes clear, it is about employers recognising and proactively risk managing back pain.
“It is a combination of providing education, resources and support for employees with, where necessary, access to more specialist support, whether that be fast-track physiotherapy, occupational health, ergonomics or (for the mental health side-effects) access to counselling services, such as an Employee Assistance Programme.
“Employees who repeat certain movements – such as lifting or twisting – or who stay in a particular position for long periods, will benefit from regular breaks. This can be just to take a walk or carry out gentle stretches. For those who are driving, building in regular breaks in this way will also help to combat drowsiness and fatigue.
“Either way, it is about encouraging employees to recognise the dangers of back pain and ensuing there is a culture and management approach within organisation that lets employees feel confident they have ‘permission’ to take a break from their screen or workstation or vehicle to take the breaks and do the stretches and exercises they need,” Cabella adds.