Karen Walker-Bone: Consider psychosocial factors when addressing musculoskeletal disorder risks


Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), for example, back pain and arthritis, are very common and, alongside mental health conditions, cause most of the UK’s burden of sickness absence and long-term work disability.

Work factors can increase the risk of MSDs. Interestingly, it is not only physical workplace exposures such as heavy lifting, pushing and pulling, kneeling and squatting that are responsible, but also psychosocial factors. High levels of demands, such as tight deadlines, high pressure; low levels of control over work; and poor levels of support from managers and colleagues also need to be addressed if MSDs are to be prevented.

Investment in training managers about MSDs, what to look for and how to support employees will more than pay for itself. Flexibility of job demands and giving workers autonomy over their workload are key to MSD reduction.

Among desk-based workers, MSD risk relates to psychosocial factors or long periods of sedentary work in abnormally static postures. Employees need to be mobile regularly, engaging in varied activities to facilitate movement or taking ‘micro-breaks’. Regular stretching before and after work is helpful. Employees should feel comfortable standing in meetings and walking meetings can be popular.

Attention should be paid to workstation set-up to minimise prolonged periods with the neck flexed or rotated. Appropriate use of adjustable chairs, footrests, ergonomic mice and keyboards can be helpful too.

Employers should encourage and incentivise employees to maintain physical fitness and resilience by participating in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy body weight, and avoiding excess alcohol and smoking.

Professor Karen Walker-Bone is director at Arthritis Research UK/MRC Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work