The Back-Breaking Cost of Back Pain

It's no secret that back pain is one of the most common reasons for missed work; 80 percent of the general population will suffer from a severe episode of lower back pain at least once in their lifetime. It's one of the most common workplace injuries and costs the nation $100 billion every year.

With back pain in the workplace on the rise, what can businesses do to protect their employees and their bottom line?

The Cost of Back Pain
The cost of back pain in America is both high and far reaching. As the leading contributor to sick days, back pain costs businesses in workers and productivity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this costs employers $1,685 per employee every year. Across the nation, that equates to a loss to businesses of $225.8 billion. And that's just the loss of productivity.

The average claim for back pain against an employer will pay out between $40,000 and $80,000. But it isn't just with jobs that involve heavy amounts of physical activity that we see these claims being made.

More than half of the workers who experience low back pain spend the majority of their work day sitting down. In fact, if you work in the construction sector, you're more likely to be hit by a vehicle or a falling brick than you are to suffer a back injury.

Short- and long-term disability insurance costs, on average, 30¢ per employee per hour worked. As the leading cause of long-term disability insurance claims, back pain costs employers $624 a year per full-time employee.

Back pain is the leading cause of loss of productivity, workplace injury claims, and job-related disability.

Back Injury Claims
Back pain accounts for almost 20 percent of all workers' compensation claims, with half a million employees making claims each year. While many claims are denied on the basis of a pre-existing condition, the average compensation to an employee with back pain is $24,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, metal workers generate over three-quarters of back claims. Industries involving high levels of activity will naturally generate a decent share of personal injury claims. But they are environments where personal safety is central to the work. Construction, metal work, and horticulture are industries where manual handling training is expected.

However, it is the rise in injuries sustained in more docile work environments that most concerning.

Back Injuries in the Workplace
In a recent survey, 54 percent of workers who suffer back pain spend the majority of their working day sitting down. This has contributed to the startling discovery that in 2016, the only sectors to increase the number of annual workplace injuries were finance and insurance.

Back pain for seated employees can occur in more ways than you might think. The most common cause is lower back pain as a result of prolonged sitting in an uncomfortable position. The natural curve of the spine isn't supported and as such, aches and pains begin to occur.

Another cause of workplace back injury is through manual handling. This can range from injuries sustained when lifting heavy objects to bending unsafely to pick up pieces of paper on the floor.

For some people, back pain is intermittent and can be managed. They only need to adjust their chair and they start to feel better. Over time and with some exercise, back pain can go away on its own. However, this is not the case for everyone.

The amount of time people take off due to back pain hit businesses hard. This is especially true for small businesses that don't have the resources to maintain a proper level of service if people are off regularly, or off long term with some sort of back-related injury.

Back pain is especially effective at keeping people off work. This is a serious problem because studies have shown that the longer someone is off work, the higher the chance he or she will not return to work.

“If an individual has been off sick with back problems for 1 month, there is a 20% chance of them still being off work one year later. If they have been off sick for 6 months, there is a 50% chance of them being off work one year later.” (Waddell, The Back Pain Revolution).

Back pain is persistent in part because it is so hard to diagnose and treat. As a result, employees who suffer from back pain can take a very long time to return to full function.

Only 10 percent of patients identify the cause of their back pain. This is because your back is a complex system of overlapping muscles supported by a delicate and intricate spine. Simply identifying muscular pain from spinal pain is a difficulty in itself.

Treating Back Pain
Treatments for back pain vary from medication to physical therapy to surgery. And while 90 percent of reported back pain injuries are resolved within six weeks, it's thought that between 60 and 80 percent of employees experience the same issues within two years.

A study published by the American Center for Progress found that the average cost of employee turnover was about 21 percent of an employee's annual salary. Replacing employees who make more than $75,000 a year can be much more costly, and jobs that require more specialized education tend to have more expensive turnover than jobs that do not require specialized education.

Large businesses would struggle to have people off sick for six months at a time, let alone smaller ones, which begs the question…

What Can Businesses Do to Prevent Employees Suffering from Back Pain?
There are a number of things companies can do to help prevent back pain and the costs to productivity and their bottom line that come with it.

1. Encourage employees to move.

Getting staff to move around a little has a variety of benefits. It promotes blood flow to the extremities, is good for maintaining good eye health, and is good for the back.

Doctors recommend short periods of stretching and moving every 30 minutes if you're a desk worker. Employers can encourage this by moving printers, water coolers, etc. a little farther away without disrupting the natural flow of an office environment.

For other seated jobs, such as long-distance drivers, getting up and moving around is more difficult. However, taking regular breaks to get out and stretch will help, as well as encouraging exercises that you can do without getting out of your seat.

2. Promote regular exercise.

For offices, promoting exercise can be a great team-building opportunity, as well as a way to reduce the effects of back pain. Gym subsidies, cycle to work schemes, and even morning yoga sessions are just a few ways to build regular exercise into everyone's work lives.

Regular exercise keeps your muscles and joints healthy and reduces the chances of causing muscular seizing in your back muscles.

3. Review your workstations.

As mentioned, one of the main causes of lower back pain is due to your employee's workstation. Make sure that all the ergonomic features of your employees desks are full adjustable. This will allow them to adjust their monitor, keyboards, and seats to a way that is comfortable and safe.

A popular idea among some businesses is the introduction of standing desks. Removing the chair from the equation altogether could drastically reduce the number of back pain complaints at work.

4. Train staff.

Manual handling is a task that occurs in a variety of job roles, including certain desk jobs. If your staff are lifting and moving heavy items, such piles of files, boxes of paper etc. it would be wise to provide manual handling training.

Not only does manual handling training protect your staff, it will protect you in the event that legal action is brought against your company.

5. Monitor sickness absences.

Take advantage of HR software to get a better picture of your staff's health and safety needs. Record when and why people are off sick to get valuable data about their needs. You can then use these data as a basis for making policy changes. If you can see that back pain and other musculoskeletal issues are a cause of absence, it may be time to discuss what you can do to help out your staff.

In industries where physical injury is not obvious, the threat of back injury is so much higher. People only notice back problems when they start to hurt, but back pain in the workplace is actively preventable if safety is at the front of their minds.

Make your office a safe environment by having supportive and functional desk furniture. Provide extra training on ergonomic seating and manual handling, so staffers can protect themselves. It's an investment that yields dividends in a variety of ways.

You don't just make people's lives better, you boost the operational abilities of your company and will be more profitable overall. Businesses need to invest in supporting their staff, figuratively and literally.

Gary Webb is Director at FMP Global, which helps companies with international HR & Payroll when placing employees overseas. Phone 800-234-1840 or email [email protected].

Posted on Sep 12, 2018

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