University to tackle musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace

The University of Manchester is to be part of a major new research centre which will tackle the impact of musculoskeletal disorders on people’s ability to work.

Researchers at the £1.4m Arthritis Research UK/MRC Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work, led by the University of Southampton, aim to find cost-effective ways of reducing the impact of conditions that affect the muscles, joints and bones on people’s employment and productivity, with benefits for patients, employers and society as a whole.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) almost 31 million days of work were lost last year due to back, neck and muscle problems, and they accounted for more prolonged absences than any other ailment. Musculoskeletal disorders have been the primary cause of absenteeism for the past five years, with the UK having one of the highest rates in Europe.

At Manchester, the focus of research will be on evaluating the costs of ‘presenteeism’ – at-work productivity loss – in patients with inflammatory diseases.

Most newly-diagnosed patients with inflammatory arthritis (For example: rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis) are of working age.

In the past, up to 30-50% of patients with inflammatory arthritis had to stop working within 5-10 years after diagnosis due to their disease. However, earlier and more effective treatment with anti-rheumatic drugs enables patients with inflammatory arthritis to remain in paid employment. Unfortunately, patients may still experience restrictions in ability and productivity while at work (presenteeism) which may lead to less job satisfaction and lower self-esteem. Presenteeism can result in less output or reduced quality of work which may have economic consequences for the employer, the patient and society.

There are many factors that may influence presenteeism such as company size, sector (private or public), and job type. For example someone with a manual job (e.g. lifting boxes) may experience different problems than for example a teacher.

To date, there is limited information about the impact of inflammatory arthritis on paid productivity and the relation between work related factors and presenteeism. It is therefore important to gain more insight in what the impact is and translate this into costs. The economic analysis will enable the researchers to better evaluate the interventions at work for patients with inflammatory arthritis in order to minimise the economic consequences for the patient, the employer and the society.

Dr Suzan Verstappen, from the University’s Centre for Musculoskeletal Research said: “There is a distinct lack of evidence about the impact of musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace and the possible economic consequences for the patient, the employer and the society”.

“By demonstrating the impact of musculoskeletal disorders on productivity, we can build a better case that will enable better interventions for both the patients and businesses.”

The Manchester part of the centre is a collaborative project between the Centre for Musculoskeletal Research, Institute of Inflammation and Repair (Dr Suzan Verstappen) and Manchester Centre for Health Economics, Institute of Population Health (Professor Katherine Payne and Dr Brenda Gannon). A PhD student has been appointed (Cheryl Jones).

Dr Stephen Simpson, director of research at medical research charity Arthritis Research UK said: “The reason for setting up the centre is that we simply don’t know enough about the best ways of keeping people with musculoskeletal conditions in employment. Our researchers will be working with employees, employers and the medical profession to find solutionsto what is a major issue for society, and we expect it will lead to some direct, practical outcomes.”

Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the Medical Research Council said: “The health and wellbeing of the UK workforce is vital to our economy. As demographic changes mean more people are working later in their lives, we must further our understanding of how to maintain healthy work environments to minimise the impact of ill health on our productivity.”