The health of an organisation’s people is paramount to achieving sustainable success and long-term growth. In line with the growing body of data supporting this, funding and resources are increasingly being channelled to initiatives that promote workforce wellbeing. However, the distribution of the resource is often skewed towards the health conditions in the media spotlight (and therefore in popular demand by employees). As a result, one crucial – but less publicised – aspect of wellbeing often remains overlooked: musculoskeletal (MSK) health.

Despite its huge impact on businesses as a primary contributor to absenteeism, MSK health is a frequently under-addressed area in workplace wellness programmes. This means that employees are suffering avoidable injuries, waiting too long to receive treatment, and recovering more slowly than they could be. This has serious consequences for their employers.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of MSK support in the workplace, and provide practical tips for establishing an environment conducive to optimal MSK health.

What is MSK health and how is it impacted by the workplace?

The musculoskeletal system comprises bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons, collectively providing structural support and facilitating movement in the human body.

MSK disorders encompass a wide range of conditions, including osteoarthritis, back pain, fractures and sports injuries, among others. These disorders not only pose significant personal challenges to individuals but are also costly for healthcare systems worldwide.

In the workplace, MSK issues often result from the fixed or constrained body positions of desk workers. Use of technology, particularly screens and laptops, has been associated with a higher incidence of MSK issues among users. These ailments, such as neck and back pain, are often attributed to factors like poor posture and improper screen positioning, which can place additional strain on the neck and back.

For those employees with a highly physical role, MSK injuries are likely to be the result of continual repetition of movement, or force, concentrated on specific body parts. This might be a result of lifting heavy objects, standing for long periods, or frequent driving.

Why is MSK health a critical concern for employers in 2024?

In recent years, the rise in hybrid and remote working has led to a notable increase in MSK issues, due to prolonged periods of sedentary work in makeshift home setups. This has been compounded by a shortage of physiotherapists in the NHS and long wait times for specialist treatment.

Back pain and neck strain are now the second most common cause of long-term absence from work in the UK. 400,000 more people are on long-term sickness for MSK conditions than before the covid pandemic.

According to the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) there were an estimated 473,000 workers suffering from work-related MSK disorders in 2022/23. This represents 1,400 per 100,000 workers (132,000 new cases in total) and resulted in an estimated 6.6 million lost working days each year.

The implications of neglecting MSK health extend beyond physical discomfort; they jeopardise multiple aspects of employee wellbeing. Research indicates a strong correlation between mental health and MSK issues, for example, with individuals experiencing persistent anxiety and depression at higher rates when living with MSK pain.

Workplace strategies for enhancing MSK health

Fortunately, there are practical and cost-effective strategies that businesses can implement to promote MSK wellness. Here are some tips for getting started.

Prevention is better than cure

Empower employees with education and awareness about MSK health, including risk factors, symptoms and preventive strategies such as maintaining good posture. By providing information through posters, training sessions and educational resources, organisations can encourage proactive steps to protect musculoskeletal health and prevent injuries.

In addition, employers are required by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ensure that their employees’ workstations are set up to support good posture and minimise strain on joints. Investing in the right equipment to achieve proper alignment of the chair, desk, screen, mouse and keyboard is a highly effective preventative approach to reduce the risk of back, neck and wrist pain in the workforce.

Make quality, timely care accessible

Long waits for MSK care are not only stressful for the injured person, but they can also result in further deterioration and discomfort. With 300,000 patients on the NHS waiting list for MSK services, it’s important for businesses to provide their workforce with alternative avenues to access to timely support and treatment. To achieve this, businesses can invest in health plans that include an on-demand MSK care solution through which employees can access expert physio support and treatment when injured.

Make stress management a priority

Stress is a common precursor to both mental health issues and musculoskeletal problems, and half of UK adults report feeling stressed at work.

Employers should endeavour to discover the root causes of workplace stress, using surveys, focus groups or 1:1s.  Measures to tackle the causes could then be introduced, such as extending flexible working policies.

In addition, encourage employees to practise relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and meditation as an effective way to alleviate muscle tension and reduce the risk of stress-related MSK issues.

Incentivise and support movement

Physical activity is crucial for strengthening muscles and preventing MSK injuries, but many adults in the UK spend up to 9 hours each day sitting down!

Employers can promote movement by incorporating short breaks between meetings, scheduling walking meetings, or providing standing desks. Competitive activity challenges and subsidised gym memberships are popular ways to incentivise employees to improve their physical health.

Tailor support to individual needs 

The most impactful MSK health support is not ‘copy and paste’. It’s important for employers to acknowledge this when designing injury-prevention programmes for MSK – support should be tailored based on individual needs and job roles.

For example, staff with physically-demanding jobs are more likely to require targeted back exercises to prevent injury, whereas neck and wrist exercises are likely to be more beneficial to desk-based employees.

At Serco, a national government subcontractor, employees with MSK injuries are able to access on-demand support via the Phio platform. According to their own schedule, health needs and preferences, they have the option to access remote physiotherapist support, self-management resources, or a quota of in-person physiotherapy sessions.

In essence, prioritising musculoskeletal health isn’t just about mitigating physical discomfort—it’s about fostering a culture of care and empowerment where employees feel valued, supported and equipped to thrive. By embracing this ethos and implementing targeted interventions, employers can truly become champions of musculoskeletal wellness with healthier, happier and more productive teams.

Peter Grinbergs
Peter Grinbergs
Co-founder at EQL | + posts

Peter Grinbergs is a physiotherapist and the Chief Medical Officer & co-founder at MSK healthtech company EQL. He has years of experience of working closely with employers, health insurers and the NHS to develop & implement solutions that widen access to musculoskeletal care & improve workforce health.