Working With Pain: What can workplaces do to support employees with persistent musculoskeletal pain to stay at work?
“Do you work in pain?” was the question asked by Dr Jodi Oakman’s research team in order to recruit participants for their recent study. The study investigated the kinds of supports that assist employees with persistent musculoskeletal pain to maintain productive employment.
Persistent musculoskeletal pain is commonly caused by conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia or back injuries. Approximately 6.1 million Australians are affected by these conditions. Economic costs are significant due to loss of productivity, reduced workforce participation, lost income tax and increased government support payments. In general, work is good for health and those who are unable to work face substantial impacts on their finances, health and mental wellbeing. Those with persistent musculoskeletal pain are less likely than their peers to be able to maintain productive employment.
The project explored the relationship between the workplace and employee and in particular, the supports needed to encourage productive employment for those with persistent pain. Fifty working individuals with persistent musculoskeletal pain completed questionnaires and 35 also undertook semi-structured telephone interviews which explored a range of issues related to: barriers and enablers to maintaining productive employment, coping strategies, workplace supports and non-workplace supports.
Organisational factors had a significant impact on working productively; as an enabler as well as a barrier to maintaining employment. Organisational support was critical in maintaining employment, in particular the role of a supportive supervisor and manager who allowed employees to control their work routine (including hours and times of work). A lack of organisational support and strained relationships between participants and co-workers was likely to have negative impacts on employee productivity. Several participants in the study raised the issue of discrimination due to employers’ or potential employers’ perceptions that employees with persistent pain conditions are a financial liability due to the risk of potential compensation claims. A range of coping strategies were utilised by participants to help them maintain their productivity at work: changing the nature of their work, taking regular breaks, accessing flexible work hours (changing start or finish times), working longer when well, enlisting support from colleagues, modifying the work environment and adjusting the work routine.
For further information on this study go to: