ONE THIRD of Britons have taken at least one day off work due to back or neck pain in the past year, resulting in 12 days off work on average, new consumer research reveals.

The research, from the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), also found that 40% of workers who spend most of their time at work sitting don’t feel they are able to take regular breaks, with only 6% reporting they are actively encouraged to. This is in spite of almost half (45%) of people who have experienced back or neck pain identifying sitting for long periods of time as a trigger for their condition and getting up from your desk being one of simplest and most effective ways to combat the pain.

The BCA study also found that only a minority of employers are proactively offering support to workers. Less than a quarter (23%) of respondents had been offered advice by their employer on how to sit at their desk to prevent work-related back pain, and only a fifth had been offered a desk assessment, ergonomic chairs or laptop stands.

Organisations can implement a healthier workplace culture.

Catherine Quinn, chiropractor and BCA President said: “No-one should feel chained to their desk all day at the expense of their health and it is an organisation’s responsibility to empower staff to look after themselves in the office. With so many workers missing work due to the condition, it is truly in employers’ interests to offer proactive help and advice to protect the health of their employees.”

Tips for employers

Workstations: consider bringing in an external organisation to undertake desk assessments for staff. They can offer personalised advice on the best way to set up workstations to prevent back or neck pain.

Technology: a number of accessories are available to promote healthier working, from adjustable screen stands, to standing desks or active seating which encourages the use of your core muscles when sitting.

Healthy breaks: implement a company culture which empowers workers to take breaks from their desk and stay active, for example by organising lunchtime walks or offering gym incentives to personnel.

There is a need for more reliable measurement of the relationship between sedentary work and back pain.

Building a hard evidence base on the impact of sedentary work

THE Workplace Health Expert Committee, which provides independent expert opinion to the Health & Safety Executive, recently published two reports on sedentary work and health.

Attempts to reduce exposure to sedentary work in the workplace have been shown to have small but demonstrable impacts on behaviour, but only when the interventions are appropriately designed, the committee found. Currently, while physical activity in leisure time is generally seen to be beneficial for health, some physically active occupations have been associated with poorer health and this needs to be clarified to prevent confusion for both employers and employees.

While there is little contemporary evidence that occupational sitting is associated with an increase in musculoskeletal symptoms, such problems are reported in young workers/ adolescents and the committee believes this should be a focus of attention, especially as this demographic will form the future workforce.

There is a need for more reliable measurement of the relationship between sedentary work and back pain.  Image: Freepik

Heart disease

The relationship between sedentary work and occupational health is not a new issue and has been the subject of epidemiological research for more than 60 years. In the early 1950s, researchers (Morris et al) demonstrated that there was a higher mortality rate and risk of first clinical episodes of coronary heart disease (CHD) and earlier onset of CHD for bus drivers than there was for the conductors. This they linked to the sedentary nature of driving. Similarly, the relationship between sedentary work and back pain has been contested for many years (Kelsey, 1975; Riihimaki, 1991). Much of the research in more recent years has been focused on the wider public health issues relating to a sedentary lifestyle, such as obesity, with sedentary work generally seen as a subset of this lifestyle.

Researchers (Ng & Popkin) estimated in 2012 that sedentary behaviours have increased by 43% in the USA and 47%  in the UK since the 1960s. Shifts in the nature and design of work are used to explain these changes. However, self-reported postural behaviours and the use of job titles as a substitute for measurement of workplace activities, are recognised as having poor validity and reliability. As a result, most studies are subject to significant potential for exposure measurement and classification errors that may reduce the strength of associations, the committee reports. However, recent advances in technology mean that simple, ambulatory recording devices that recognise many different physical behaviours may rapidly change our ability to record exposures in sedentary work. Such studies will inform our knowledge of potential risk and make it easier to establish the benefits of any workplace intervention strategies.

Would attempting to reduce exposure to sedentary postures in the workplace make a difference? Chau et al (2010) reviewed the literature regarding workplace studies to reduce sedentary work. They found few, high-quality studies and no evidence of significant, effective interventions. A small study by Pronk et al (2012) considered the benefits of a sit-stand device for a range of workers with sedentary jobs. They reported a reduction in sitting of 66 minutes a day (representing a reduction of 224%) along with reduced upper back and neck pain and improved mood states (Grove & Prapavessis, 1992). The study results are of interest and the committee concluded they should be the subject of further research where problems such as random allocation to the intervention groups and improved exposure assessment might be overcome.

Article from TalkBack, Spring | 2019 (BackCare)

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