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NEWS: “Employment can reverse ill health effects,” Professor tells MSD summit

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Walker-Bone urged employers to play their part in supporting workers with back, neck and other MSD conditions to reap the health benefits from staying in work.


“Back and neck pain, shoulder and knee pain and osteoarthritis – five of the top six problems that affect our work productivity are musculoskeletal or, allied to it, depression, fatigue and pain.”

Professor Walker-Bone addressing the HSE conference in London on musculoskeletal disorders yesterday, on one hand painted a dire picture of the problem that is pervasive across the UK.

“Of the people off sick for 6 months, only 50 per cent of go back to work – long term sickness is really bad for a person’s health,” she said. 

New UK disability claims are also among highest in the 35 world wide member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "Mental health and MSDs are the major conditions that cause this."

On the other hand she gave a helpful and inspiring view of the solutions, pointing out the role that employers can play in preventing conditions before they become serious and, in helping their employees stay in work if they do.

 “Work is generally good for physical and mental health and wellbeing. Unemployment and unnecessarily prolonged sickness absence are generally bad for physical and mental health and wellbeing – people get more ill when off sick.”

Professor Karen Walker-Bone addressing delegates at the MSD summit in London on 21 March

She warned against following the government’s ‘daft’ approach that neatly compartmentalises mental health and MSDs.

“These are not silos, the individuals that have MSDs often have depression, and vice versa. And any strategy that’s going to change the risks of mental health needs could also help with MSK and vice versa.”

Her advice showed how helping people stay in work, by making adaptations to their needs and being ‘compassionate’ rather than pressurising them to recover, would help their mental health and all the associated benefits of wider health.

“Unemployment effects mental health – when you come back to the workplace it can reverse those adverse effects. This applies to healthy people of all ages. People are better off when they’re being more productive, that’s what human beings are for.”

Employers also had a vital role in responding to conditions before they worsen, Walker-Bone giving the example of a previous patient, a 44-year old bank clerk. The lady had experienced a treatable wrist pain due to her work. Over time she became reliant on medication due to limited movement that had progressed throughout her body, considerable pain and low moods.

“If an individual leaves work on health grounds you could argue the organisation has failed them. You must think what could you do differently, what should prevent this happening to the next person who comes along?”

Professor Walker-Bone, director of the Centre for Musculoskeletal Health & Work at the University of Southampton was speaking at HSE’s MSD summit in London on 21 March. Watch her speech on Live Stream here

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