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Using physiotherapy to enhance employee health and productivity

John Doyle

According to research, 40 per cent of all UK sickness absence is due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). This equates to around 9.5 million working days lost every year, but despite their prevalence, safeguarding musculoskeletal health is often overlooked by employers both large and small. Contributor John Doyle, Professional Head of Physiotherapy – Nuffield Health.

It’s easy to think if your role does not require physical labour you can’t injure yourself at work. However, office workers get just as many problems, caused by sedentary behaviour, physical inactivity and other lifestyle factors.

John Doyle, Professional Head of Physiotherapy at Nuffield Health discusses the role physiotherapists can play in your workforce to reduce MSDs’ negative impact on employee wellbeing and productivity.

Physiotherapy is generally associated with resolving MSDs once they have taken a turn for the worse. However, it also has a proactive role in enhancing employee wellbeing and risk management.

Physiotherapists have an in-depth understanding of the strains caused by poor working habits and the contributing factors which lead to the development of musculoskeletal problems. By listening to the employer, they can understand the working patterns and needs of staff and how to create a bespoke strategy that’s right for them.

To manage risk factors in your workplace which can contribute to the development of MSDs, it’s essential to take a holistic view, focusing on increasing physical activity levels, improving aspects of emotional wellbeing which can contribute to pain, as well as more traditional interventions like workplace ergonomics.

Prompt diagnosis
One in six people in the UK is over 65 years old. This number is increasing, with the government predicting there will be 19 million people over 65 by 2050. An ageing population, coupled with the fact an MSD like arthritis can affect anyone at any point in their career, means it’s inevitable a small percentage of the workforce will experience an MSD despite an employer’s best intentions.

This means having access to a physiotherapist could be beneficial in helping businesses spot the early ‘warning signs’ which include decreased range of motion, loss of limb function, muscle weakness and decreased grip strength before conditions become more acute.

Believe it or not, many people don’t realise they need to seek medical advice and shrug off potential MSDs as ‘just a part of getting older.’ However, the sooner individuals ask for help the better and, in many cases, this early intervention prevents any absence from work.

MSDs also go hand in hand with poor mental health, with pain and discomfort being linked to stress and anxiety. Employees avoiding physical triggers could find their mental health improved, as their mood is lifted and they achieve better quality sleep thanks to relief from the nagging pain.

Physiotherapists who undergo extra postgraduate training in emotional wellbeing can identify the overlap between physical and emotional wellbeing contributions to a person’s pain and deliver treatments to improve both aspects. Having this expertise is critical to gaining good outcomes in the short, but more importantly, long-term with patients who have MSDs.

On-site options
Providing access to MSD treatment through the workplace can prevent and reduce absences from work, which is good for the individual, saves money for the employer and boosts the economy overall by keeping a taxpayer in work.

Bringing a physiotherapist on site to work with your employees may even encourage uptake among those who wouldn’t have wanted to travel off-site. Through onsite services, a physiotherapist becomes a key part of the team and can fully understand the culture of an organisation. This not only equates to better results from treatment but as business partners, they can provide valuable insight into the issues impacting MSDs in the workplace.

Off-site assistance
If your company is looking for an occupational physiotherapy service but doesn’t have the space for an on-site clinic, then employees can be treated off-site on a case-by-case basis. Your employees will receive a similar service to that of an on-site clinic, including specialised physiotherapy assessment, treatment and return to work and rehabilitation programmes.

Workplaces can also provide access to flexible physiotherapy offerings through different mobile app services. These enable employees to self-manage injuries more effectively and help them learn more about the necessary recommendations for workplace adjustments where appropriate. Some even use employee data to create a personalised action plan tailored to physical health needs.

As mentioned earlier, physical and mental health problems are often interrelated, so experienced physiotherapists should assist in educating employees on the correct ways to build emotional resilience too. Steps could include creating a positive, healthy workplace culture, which can be as simple as encouraging an open and communicative atmosphere where people feel they can chat to their colleagues about struggles and share advice.

Return to work
Professional support is essential to implement a sustained return to work and prevent further absence. A highly trained and experienced physiotherapist can identify what adaptions need to be made for an employee returning to work and assist businesses in putting these in place.

They will be able to highlight any work-related or personal factors causing ongoing difficulties and should liaise with supervisors or managers whenever needed. Some cases will require monitoring, with a review of progress at regular intervals.

If someone is off work or unable to work normally due to back pain or injury and they have continued to have problems for 4-6 weeks, you can invest in specialised rehabilitation schemes (e.g. spinal rehabilitation programmes).

These bring together the expertise of physiotherapy and gym fitness, using a psycho-social approach combining, supervised and graded exercise programmes with functional capacity tests and relaxation techniques. Physiotherapy’s vital role in the workplace is not only becoming more recognised across a diverse range of settings across all sectors.  Evidence also shows businesses will see an average return of £3 for every £1 invested in the service. As the economy continues to struggle back to life, the importance of that statistic speaks for itself.

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