The spine and the mind: A potential epidemic facing desk workers

The spine and the mind: A potential epidemic facing desk workers

Posted: Tue 18th Feb 2020

With people experiencing back pain more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition, how can employers ensure they provide the right physical and emotional support to their workforce? In this blog, Matthew Reed, founder of Equipsme, shares advice.

In 2014 Dr James Levine warned "we are sitting ourselves to death". You see his point. A sedentary lifestyle has been proven to increase the risk of diseases and chronic illness.

With 81% of the of workforce spending between four and nine hours a day sitting, it's no surprise that the CIPD recently reported joint, bone and muscle injuries including back pain as the second most common cause of workplace absenteeism. It comes second only to mental ill health.

But rather than seeing these as separate issues, there is an abundance of research to show the two are in fact intrinsically linked.

Back pain and mental health

One of the largest studies into the connections between back pain and psychological illness was published shows that those who experience back pain are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition.

It's a chicken and egg situation: Just as back pain can lead to mental illness, such as depression, research also shows that depression can cause, or worsen pain.

If we consider the effects of back pain; restricting movement, preventing sufferers from being physically and socially active and, in chronic cases, impacting sleep and diet, the toll on emotional wellbeing is unsurprising.

However, mental illness such as depression has also been shown to cause changes in the brain affecting many of the body's central systems. For example, impacting brain messages such as serotonin and reducing a person's pain threshold.

In addition, some medication prescribed to help deal with chronic back pain can induce psychological side effects, including depression and anxiety.

With back pain and mental ill health often slow to diagnose, how can employers support staff who are suffering, and reduce the chances of these problems from occurring in the first place?

Wellbeing at work: The employee's view

Wellbeing at work is a hot topic right now, and when it comes to issues such as chronic back pain or poor mental health, free fruit baskets and lunchtime meditation sessions aren't going to cut the mustard.

As an employer, you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate an employee with a disability. And make no mistake, lower back pain, while often not indicative of a serious disease, can be just a debilitating.

But who's to say what's reasonable? A quick look at online forums show the differing views of employees versus employers.

There are frequent reports of employees feeling they are not being taken seriously when off sick due to back pain.

Many feel judged for carrying out basic day-to-day tasks at home and guilty for living their life despite not working. It's an internal dilemma that in itself can contribute to anxiety and depression.

Often, guilt is a result of an employer's lack of flexibility, taking the stance that if someone is not physically able to come into work, they should not be able to work from home either.

As an employer, absenteeism due to back pain and mental ill health can be a big strain financially. The balance of being sympathetic while also ensuring business continues to operate is the sweet spot we are seeking.

So what strategies can companies take to improve wellbeing and in turn reduce absenteeism due to these conditions?

Supporting staff the right way

The trick is to look at these situations holistically.

Physical and mental health is interrelated and distress in one can cause distress in the other. Therefore an integrative and collaborative approach is required to treat the back pain and mental ill health associated with back pain.

If back pain becomes a reason for absenteeism, look for ways of supporting your employee by offering flexibility in work routine or showing reasonable adjustment to the working environment.

If the employee in question has a good record of attendance and is generally a reliable worker, making minor adjustments or offering flexibility in routine or environment could be all that's needed.

The gesture of offering general health checks and occupational support has also been shown to improve levels of absenteeism.

Employees feel more cared for and valued. This is backed up by a study published by Occupational Medicine looking at returning to work with chronic pain.

The results indicate that clear and regular communication is key. Employees wanted to feel their employer showed genuine concern, instead of merely asking how they were as a platitude.

Preventing the problem

In the case of both back pain and mental ill health, a GP will often encourage people to be more active as a starting point.

Encouraging staff to be more active throughout the day could be a good way to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

Companies have reported significant benefits of implementing walking/standing meetings or creating walking clubs.

You could also consider more flexibility with working hours to allow employees to exercise during their lunch break. All simple and affordable strategies.

However, if you're considering introducing standing desks as a way to improve your staff's spinal health, hold fire. While investment in ergonomic workstations is a growing trend, there are conflicting reports on the benefits. Sitting all day is obviously bad for you but so, allege some sources, is standing.

So is this really an epidemic we're facing? Well, the jury's still out.

But one thing's for sure: back pain and mental ill health are on the rise and taking steps to support your staff properly is critical if you want to keep your company running smoothly.

Whilst office yoga and free fruit Fridays might seem a temptingly simple solution, focusing your company's wellbeing programme on good people management and a decent occupational health programme is a much more effective.

Relevant resources

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