Is back, neck and muscle pain hurting the UK economy?

Thinkstock About 44 million workers in the EU have musculoskeletal disorders caused by their workplace

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The UK economy is slowly recovering, but the country's workforce is in considerable pain.

Almost 31 million days of work were lost last year due to back, neck and muscle problems, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS's Labour Force Survey, which polls hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, found that musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions, which include a large range of bone and joint complaints, accounted for more prolonged absences than any other ailment.

Minor illnesses such as the common cough or cold accounted for 27 million lost days, but MSKs were more likely to recur, and develop into long-term conditions.


  • Overall, the number of sick days taken in the UK is down from 178 million in 1993 to 131 million last year
  • Stress, depression, anxiety accounted for more than 15 million sick days, the highest in five years
  • Minor illnesses, such as colds and coughs, were the most common reason given for absences
  • Men have consistently lower sickness rates than women
  • The sickness rate is lowest in London

Source: ONS

Although the country's workforce has largely swapped heavy manual labour for sitting in offices, MSKs have been the primary cause of absenteeism for the past five years, and the UK has one of the highest rates in Europe.

In fact, the Work Foundation estimates that employees suffering from bone and joint pain cost the EU's economies 240bn euros (£200bn) each year.

So why have bone and joint complaints persisted?

"Sitting is the new smoking," explains Prof Steve Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation.

"The more sedentary you are the worse it is for your health."

Chronic keyboards

Offices, it turns out, can be harmful environments.

ONS Chart

While there are still significant numbers doing work that requires lifting or awkward movement, strict health and safety legislation has helped reduce the amount of injuries incurred in those jobs.

Most deskbound workers, however, are not adequately addressing their health risks, and waving away the pesky "work station assessment officer".

Start Quote

Around 30% of all disability in the UK is due to these conditions”

End Quote Prof Anthony Woolf Royal Cornwall Hospital

Preventative measures, such as keeping chairs, desks and computers at the right height, are often neglected.

"Many office workers make repetitive movements," says Prof Bevan. "Allowing people to move around and take breaks is essential."

Early detection

Once symptoms do occur, we are slow to react. A two-year trial in Madrid showed that by assessing and treating 13,000 workers with MSKs who had been off for five days or more, their temporary work absence was reduced by 39% in the long term.

The Work Foundation estimates that more than 60,000 Britons would be available for work if the Madrid tactics were replicated in the UK.

However, even the more careful among us are at risk of MSKs, and the workplace may have little to do with it.

"People forget how common musculoskeletal problems are," Prof Anthony Woolf, a rheumatologist at the Royal Cornwall Hospital, told the BBC.


The average number of days lost per worker fell from 7.2 in 1993 to 6.3 in 2003 and then dropped to 4.4 in 2013. That's an impressive fall. Is that because we're all much healthier?

It's hard to find any statistics that show that. We keep hearing about increased strain on GP surgeries and hospitals. While a lot of that is down to children and the elderly, some of it must involve people of working age.

HR body the CIPD says that people are not taking sick leave because they are worried about their jobs, and that people going to work when they should be staying in bed is a growing problem.

"Around 30% of all disability in the UK is due to these conditions."

'Ferrari without wheels'

Indeed, alarm bells have been ringing for some time over the impact of musculoskeletal diseases.

In 2000, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan launched the Bone and Joint Decade at the World Health Organization in Switzerland, an initiative designed to reduce the number of MSKs around the globe.

Not much has changed since. A study by medical journal The Lancet, published in 2012, found that musculoskeletal conditions were the second greatest cause of disability in the world, affecting over 1.7 billion people worldwide.

"I describe suffering from musculoskeletal disorders as being like a Ferrari without wheels," says Prof Woolf, who is also the chair of Bone and Joint Decade. "If you don't have mobility and dexterity, it doesn't matter how healthy the rest of your body is."

Neck and back X-ray Recurrent MSKs account for 60% of permanent work incapacity in the EU
Snowball effect

The rest of the body is likely to suffer too. Having an MSK dramatically increases the likelihood of suffering from depression, says the Work Foundation.

And according to the ONS, depression accounts for the third largest amount of missed work days in the UK - 15 million.

But changing attitudes could be having an effect. There has been a general reduction in the total number of work-related MSKs since 2001, and a series of measures have been introduced to increase awareness of the problem.

The "fit note", introduced in 2010, encourages doctors to provide details of what may be causing employees' ill health, and suggest adjustments to be made.

Smaller business looking to make their workplaces safer can also access government grants to help them do so.

In the meantime, sit up straight - it could help the recovery.

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