Around a quarter of all Australians suffer from pain related to back and spine health on any day. How can HR help sufferers to stay pain-free at work?
Sitting at a desk for six to eight hours a day can increase the back and spine health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Not only can it boost the likelihood of developing cancer, diabetes and heart disease, but it is also proving to be a serious pain in the back (don’t pardon the pun, just enjoy it).
Back pain can be debilitating, so it’s associated with significant workforce absenteeism. A recent study published in the Medical Journal of Australia shows it is a significant contributor to lost productivity, second only to mental health.
It can vary from sharp stings to prolonged aches anywhere from the base of the neck to the hips. Most commonly, it affects the lower back.
Estimates from a recent national health survey show that 70-90 per cent of people will suffer from lower back pain in some form at some point in their lives. Risk factors include obesity, poor muscle tone, incorrect lifting techniques and sitting for prolonged periods.
The curse of sitting
The spine has a natural S-shaped curve, but when we sit at a desk for hours on end, it slouches into a C shape that compresses the spinal discs, which are fluid-filled sacks between the vertebrae that act as shock absorbers.
“After sitting for six to eight hours, people’s backs ache because they have squeezed the fluid out of the discs, and that’s why we’re often an inch shorter at the end of the day,” says Mark Alexander, a former Olympic team physiotherapist and author of the book Beating Back Pain.
Not only poor posture causes lower back pain and poor spine health. Sitting for hours also causes our muscles to switch off.
“Core muscles, such as the transverse abdominis, obliques and pelvic floor contribute to spinal stability,” says Alexander. “When we sit around all day, they become floppy and their ability to support the spine is reduced.”
Nicole Press, technical specialist at workplace injuries consultancy Konekt, says back pain contributes to about 25 per cent of workplace injuries. Konekt has analysed 113,000 workplace back pain cases in the past six years and has found that 10-18 per cent occur within sedentary roles.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) often cover parts of back pain treatment, such as pain-management coaching. “While EAP providers can help address pain management, there’s research that shows diagnosis of a back injury is less relevant to someone’s recovery than factors such as how supported they feel at work,” explains Press.
Employers should consider how well safety is promoted in the workplace. “Posters around their workplace are fine, but ultimately, embedding a culture of maximising incidental activity is valuable because the more physically active you can be at work, the better off you will be.”
6 ways to promote back health
(Courtesy of OsteopathyAustralia)
1. Encourage regular movement throughout the day
Physiotherapist Mark Alexander says this can be as simple as giving water bottles to all employees. “The more they drink, the more regularly they will get up to go to the toilet.” Also computer monitor calendars alert employees to get up and move.
2. Build regular breaks into work practices
Nicole Press suggests introducing standing meetings to encourage less sitting.
3. Inform and educate
Use every opportunity to promote back health. Press suggests including practical information in workplace induction packs for new employees.
4. Introduce sit-stand desks
Standing at a desk can promote good posture and also engage muscles required to support the back.
5. Provide back support equipment
Items such as bolsters or balls placed behind the lower back prevent slouching and promote good posture.
6. Provide lunchtime yoga or pilates classes
Yoga and pilates target core muscle groups required for supporting the back and promoting spine health.