Employers must do more to address musculoskeletal conditions in the workplace says Unum's Andrew Potterton.
According to a recent ONS study, 31 million working days were lost in 2013 to back and neck problems.
The impact of musculoskeletal disorders on productivity and employee wellbeing is not something employers have just discovered - this has, after all, been the most common cause of sickness absence in the UK for some time, 35m days being lost in 2011 .
Clearly there is a strong business case for employers to intervene and support their people.
Yet The Work Foundation and Fit for Work UK study published this month said employers aren't doing enough to support staff with or at risk of chronic back or neck pain.
The study found that employees are often left to manage their problems themselves, with little input from HR managers or line managers. This carries the risks of employees pushing themselves too far to stay in work, of an unhealthy work life balance and of further health deterioration.
The Work Foundation and Fit for Work UK make sensible recommendations to employers about the need to understand their responsibilities and increase line manager confidence in helping team members with chronic back or neck pain. At the heart of this is a clear need for employers to demonstrate to staff affected by these conditions that they care and want to provide support.
An important step is to train line managers to recognise the signs of developing back or neck pain and educate them about what to do when they are spotted, particularly as musculoskeletal disorders can develop gradually and unnoticed, which can be further aggravated by an employee's work routine.
This will not only increase awareness of these problems but should also help staff to manage their conditions and contribute to fewer unnecessary sick days in the long term. On top of this, managers should also receive support so they feel confident giving advice and support to employees.
Culture of openess
Creating a culture of openness and encouraging conversation around musculoskeletal conditions can also have a positive impact, especially when staff might need a phased return to work plan or reduced working hours to cope with their condition.
Open and regular communication between HR, line manager and employee is an effective way of making people feel cared for, maintaining productivity and relieving the pressure. Maintaining communication can also mean that employees are less likely to develop secondary conditions such as stress that may lead to an extended period of sickness absence.
Training on all this is increasingly available as part of an employer's Income Protection (IP) insurance cover, as well as additional support from Employee Assistance Programmes and help lines designed to support line managers who are stuck on the best thing to do.
If problems escalate and an employee does need time off, having IP to cover short and long term absence also serves to show employees they are valued, and supports employers and their people in many ways beyond the vital financial protection they get. For example, IP can also provide vocational rehabilitation services if an employee chooses to return to work.
To make sure staff affected by musculoskeletal conditions and their line managers benefit from the support available, employers must effectively communicate their existing benefits - yet currently, this is not common enough practice.
Our research has shown that 64% of businesses have invested in good employee benefits but don't tell staff what they are entitled to, which means staff don't benefit from the support available to them and employers don't reap the benefits in terms of increased productivity and reduced sickness absence.
Being aware of what benefits are on offer can be a huge weight off an employee's mind when dealing with a musculoskeletal condition and can actually reduce any stress and worry.
No employee should feel that they have to face their condition alone. Employers need wake up to the fact that this problem may be going unnoticed within their organisation and recognise that every business needs a strategy in place that addresses the impact of musculoskeletal conditions at all stages - whether at the first signs that something is wrong or at the return to work stage.
Making staff feel cared for, up-skilling line managers and providing tangible support through employee benefits packages are key if employers are to pick up the gauntlet and address these concerns.
Andrew Potterton, is head of proposition development at Unum
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