Back pain is costing employers, and it’s no wonder why. About 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain, regardless of profession, says Omi Iwasaki, doctor of physical therapy and vice president of field operations at EXOS.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration figures show that back pain and work absence, along with decreased productivity, drain companies of billions each year. Luckily, there’s lots you can do to curb the costs of back pain at work. Keep reading for ways you can help employees ease their pain.
Provide opportunities for movement.
“The crux of the matter is that people aren’t moving,” Iwasaki says. About half of Americans with low back pain spend the majority of their waking hours sitting, he says.
If you or your employees experience back pain when sitting, sprinkling movement in throughout the day can have a huge impact on pain levels and even help prevent the aches that come with being chained to a desk all day.
That can come in many forms: Parking farther away, taking the stairs, using the restroom on a different floor, hold a walking meeting with a co-worker, or taking phone calls standing up.
Go even further by helping employees form like-minded groups based around movement. Hiking, walking/running groups, a dance or Zumba class, and yoga offerings can have more appeal than any fitness center you might provide. The more free-form activities don’t feel like exercise, Iwasaki says, “so those are the types of things that tend to resonate.”
Identify the cause of back pain.
If you’re wondering how to relieve back pain at work, start at the source. In many cases, people with back pain simply seek to stop their discomfort instead of learning the cause, Iwasaki says. That can lead chronic sufferers to mask pain with medication, massage therapy, or other treatments that work only in the short-term.
Instead of masking the problem, help employees find the root of work-related back pain. Consider hosting movement professionals to perform evaluations and assessments.
“Lower back pain doesn’t necessarily come solely from your low back,” says Graeme Lauriston, vice president of physical therapy and sports medicine at EXOS. Movement professionals can identify the cause and then provide tools to address it. Proactive self-care solutions like mobility work, physical therapy-style exercises, and stretches are often the most effective, Lauriston says.
They aren’t quick fixes, though. Feeling better comes with consistency.
“It’s important for employees to have a mindset of ‘I need to build in time in my day to take care of this and do things I know are going to help with this pain,’ not just taking a pill or an injection or having a surgery,” Lauriston says.
And remember: The longer back pain persists or goes untreated, the longer it takes to get rid of. “It’s not just going to solve itself right away by doing a few stretches a few times a week,” he says. If the pain is sharp, worsens or radiates down the legs, Lauriston suggests employees seek medical care.
Find the right tools to fight back pain.
Give employees the tools to evaluate their environment, Lauriston says. No need for ergonomic overkill, but chairs and desks should be adjusted to a comfortable height. This will help prevent back pain when sitting. Constantly looking to the side or up or down can irritate the neck. And, having a desk that’s too high or too low can lead to shrugged shoulders, which results in tightness.
Upgrade workspaces with visual cues that encourage movement. A foam roller next to each desk can inspire employees to roll out tight quads. Reminders like a small sign next to phones encouraging them to stand up during a phone call can make a difference, Lauriston says.
Encourage a combination of sitting and standing.
Changing positions and postures is key to managing back pain at work. That doesn’t mean going from one extreme to another though. Standing all day can be just as hard on the body as sitting all day, Lauriston says, especially for someone already in pain. “If they stand in one place for even 10 minutes, they’re uncomfortable,” he says.
Instead, encourage employees to move and adjust throughout the day. Sitting and standing aren’t the only options. Lauriston spends time in a kneeling or half-kneeling position. Employees should build up slowly, though, he says, with two to five minutes in a new position until they’re comfortable with it. This will help them avoid back pain caused by standing or sitting too long.
Focus on overall health.
Other lifestyle factors can be just as essential in solving back pain. Proper nutrition and hydration impact healing in major ways, Lauriston says, and educating employees on the importance of proper fueling may help pain levels.
Get employees moving toward living healthier lives overall, and you can chip away at aches and pains. Swap breakroom doughnuts for fruit, host a dietitian to talk healthy snacks (with samples), or introduce a hydration campaign. Pass out free water bottles to get your employees talking and eliminate excuses.
Getting enough sleep is also integral. Eight hours a night may not be doable or even necessary, Lauriston says, but consistently getting an adequate amount of sleep will promote healing. “That’s when our body is truly at a state of rest and is able to recover and regenerate,” he says.
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