Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Health & safety—Backs to the future

Back pain is the most frequent and costly musculoskeletal complaint in Western societies, responsible for approximately 40 percent of missed work days. Rachel Lilley examines the problem and outlines some tips on how to manage back pain at your work.

BACK PAIN CONTINUES TO be the most common and costly cause of absenteeism from work. We have all had it ourselves, or we know someone with it, and yet it continues to be fraught with challenges—including diagnosing the problem, getting the right treatment and helping to ensure your workers with back pain stay at work or return to work safely.

From a workforce perspective, back pain remains as the most frequent and costly musculoskeletal complaint in Western societies. It is the leading cause of work disability in workers aged less than 45 years and is responsible for approximately 40 percent of missed work days.

Approximately 20 percent of all ACC injury claims at work are from back pain, with over 42,000 claims a year at an annual cost of over $150 million (2015/2016 financial year).

But there are other costs besides just compensation and loss of workplace productivity. People with back problems can suffer ongoing pain and associated loss in function for long periods and for many the problem keeps coming back. A small number go on to develop significant chronic pain with serious lifelong implications on their employment and quality of life.

So, what is it about back pain that causes everyone so many problems?

The first issue is that it can be very difficult to work out the precise cause of the problem. By most estimates, health professionals can only identify an exact anatomical cause of back pain in less than 20 percent of cases.

That means that in the remaining 80 percent of people experiencing back pain, there appears to be no clear damage to the spine which could be responsible for the pain.

This in itself isn’t really a problem—but we live in a society where we expect answers and the endless (and often fruitless) search for a diagnosis can be a costly and frustrating experience for all involved.

The other problem we have is that back pain “just happens”. The majority of people with back pain develop symptoms gradually over a period of time, without a sudden event that causes the problem.

The fact that someone may suddenly feel back pain when they twist or bend down to lift something doesn’t necessarily mean that this event has caused any damage.

In all reality, there are likely to be several factors that have contributed or predisposed the worker to the onset of symptoms. Consequently, strategies to prevent back pain from developing are usually unsuccessful, and endless initiatives to determine the exact cause of a worker’s back pain are often inconclusive and a waste of time.

It is worth noting, there are some key groups that are more susceptible to developing back pain at work. This includes those:

  • • 
    Involved in heavy manual labour;
  • • 
    Performing tasks that are beyond their physical capabilities;
  • • 
    With low control over their job;
  • • 
    Required to stand for prolonged periods;
  • • 
    Maintaining awkward lifting squatting/kneeling postures.

There is also an associated increased risk of back pain for smokers, and those who are obese and/or generally inactive.


We now know that back pain just happens, and it is difficult to determine the exact cause and diagnosis; however, the good news is that the vast majority of people with back pain will get better.

Here are some tips on how to manage back pain at your work.

  • • 
    Encourage and support worker wellbeing. The worker’s health and wellbeing can impact on back pain and how they manage it. Promoting and supporting healthy lifestyles for your workers, such a maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, regular exercise, stress management and adequate sleep, is of benefit.
  • • 
    Provide opportunities for a varied work environment. Our body is designed to be used in different positions and to do a variety of tasks. It is important to offer workers opportunities to vary their work postures, positions and tasks throughout the working day.
  • • 
    Promote early reporting of pain, discomfort and injury. Encourage early reporting from workers and respond quickly, positively and proactively. The sooner the symptoms and issues are addressed the better the outcome.
  • • 
    Create a supportive environment at work. Back problems can have a significant effect on the person’s life, both in and out of work. As an employer, it is important to ensure your workers know that you care—and that you want to help. If the worker needs to be off work for a period, ensure you make regular contact with them.
  • • 
    Work together to solve the problem. Work with your employees to identify and address possible factors, both at work and outside of work, that may be contributing to their symptoms. Discuss how to manage the issues and assist with strategies to keep them at work.
  • • 
    Support work options. The most important predictor of success is for the worker to have a job to return to. Where possible, support your workers to remain at work while they are recovering from back pain. This may include offering meaningful alternative duties, reduced hours and/or equipment to the worker to assist them to stay at work.
  • • 
    Get help. Utilise the expertise of health professionals (such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists) to provide support to you and your workers with back pain to help them stay at work or return to work.

Occupational health physiotherapist RACHEL LILLEY is the national vocational services manager for TBI Health Group Ltd.

comments powered by Disqus

From Employment Today Magazine

Table of Contents