Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) is the term given to a variety of painful conditions that affect the muscles, bones, and joints, which are a leading causes of long term sickness absence in the UK. According to the 2014/15 Labour Force Survey, an estimated 9.5 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders – which represents 40% of all days lost due to work related ill-health in 2014/15.
However, the issues caused by MSDs don’t just start and end with muscle or joint pain. New research published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation has found that workers taking time off work as a result of MSDs are also at risk of developing symptoms of depression in the first year after their injury.
The researchers interviewed workers with an MSD at one, six and 12 months post-injury, and found that almost 30% were receiving treatment for depression by the 12 month point. The authors concluded that: “While symptoms appear to improve over time, the first six months appear to be important in establishing future symptom levels and may represent a window of opportunity for early screening.”
This research highlights the importance of early intervention when someone is off work for a significant period of time, showing that complications and additional health or mental health issues can develop over time. With Fit for Work, a referral can be made once someone reaches the four week point of absence by either a GP or employer – and this is because research shows that the longer someone is off work, the harder it becomes for them to make a successful return to their job. Early intervention ensures that an employee suffering from an MSD feels supported, and any issues can be addressed early on to prevent a worsening of their condition.
This new research also highlights the importance of the biopsychosocial approach of the Fit for Work occupational health assessment. Being off work for a significant period of time, whether due to an musculoskeletal disorder or other condition, can cause many other repercussions – including mental health issues, as found by the MSD research; but also things like social and financial difficulties too. When someone is referred to Fit for Work, their case manager will spend the initial 45-minute telephone assessment going through every obstacle preventing that person returning to work. If someone with a musculoskeletal disorder were also feeling depressed, and this were adding to their difficulty getting back to work, this would be taken on board and built into the patient’s Return to Work Plan, to ensure they are given all the support they need to help them get back to work in a way that suited them.
Employees looking for support and advice for physical or mental health conditions that may be preventing them from working can call the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235. Employers can refer their staff on long-term sickness absence to Fit for Work, and can visit the Fit for Work website to find out more.