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Is there a link between Musculoskeletal Disorders and Mental Health?

As people are sat at home during the Coronavirus pandemic, they can get a feeling of being incapacitated due to the restrictions of the government guidelines. Not able to go to work, not able to earn money to pay the bills, not being able to enjoy time with family that are not from the same household, not being able to take part in hobbies or pastimes, the list goes on. 

Imagine then, if you make this situation worse by having some sort of Musculoskeletal Disorder. Let's take sciatica, slipped disc, herniated disc, prolapsed disc or a trapped nerve in your lower back. These are still some of the most common causes of lost time in the workplace. Now you are at home, unable to go out, you may have to rely on others to assist you with simple tasks like standing up or going to the toilet, because of the injury and pain. 

This would make most people feel helpless and frustrated, to go from being fit and active with no thought about your next action, but now you are having to think about what you are going to do next because you may have to wait for help in order to do it. This is extremely likely to have an impact on your mental health.

I enjoy going to the gym, this is something that is a huge part of my life, I once got an injury and I had to stop going to the gym for about  6 weeks. I now had restrictions and was unable to do what I wanted to, it had a massive effect on my mood not being able to do something I enjoyed. I was not happy, I was snappy to those around me, I felt sorry for myself and would tear up at simple things on TV. Without knowing it, my mental health was starting to deteriorate, because I had gone from living my life to the full, to having difficulty doing simple things most of us take for granted. I won't get into the effects of painkillers and starting to have a reliance on them in this article, but it is worth a thought about people of full time pain management and addiction to Opioids.  

This is a situation I hear of on a regular basis. As an employer, if you have an employee off with a bad back, it is good to be aware of the impact this could have on their mental health with them being unable to work. Now, I am not saying it is the employers responsibility to have involvement in an employee's personal/home life. However, it is essential to the working relationship for the employee to feel valued, and this extends to any period where they may not be at work due to an injury. A relationship can very quickly be damaged if an employee does not feel supported or that they have been treated well in a time of need... sometimes it's as easy as a phone call. 

Aside from the stress they are already under, this could cause additional stress and anxiety in an already difficult situation, adding to the risk of a decline in their mental health. It may also delay their return to work, or make them not want to return at all... now you can see how this will become an issue for the employer. 

If you were to tell someone to take time off and go home and watch TV for 6-8 weeks (average time off for a back injury before return to work), to do nothing and not go to work. Most people would say “yeah, no problems”. However, now some of us are doing this because of the Coronavirus, the reality is, it's not that easy. 

So what happens to the employees thoughts? They may think, I need to get to work or I could lose my job, I need to earn some money, I need to pay the bills, my family is relying on me, I can't watch any more daytime TV. So they try to return to work early without being fit for work. 

Normal return to work process goes along the lines of -

  1. Get a clearance from the doctor (employee says they are fine to the Doctor, so they get a fit for work form)

  2. Return to work interview by a Manager, which may involve an office based Root Cause Analysis (Manager is filling in paperwork and carrying out process only)

  3. Possible phased back to work or light duties (paid a wage, but not a fully fit employee in reality)

  4. Goes through re training (employee sat in training, being paid but still not working at full capacity)

  5. Employee goes back doing the same job the same way. Now is not as productive as they were prior to the injury. Is not really physically capable, because there has not been any rehabilitation. Upon return to work, is now mentaly afraid of injuring themselves again. May rely on painkillers to get through the working day. 

There are a couple of common scenarios from this point -

  • The employee is placed on light duties permanently. Being paid the same as their peers but not doing the same job. Which could start name calling and banter e.g. lazy, workshy, glassback ect.

  • The employee looks to avoid doing certain tasks at work. Can cause issues with peers who now have to pick up the slack. Which could lead to complaints and animosity between employees.

  • This can limit Managers with who can do what. Manager has a lack of sympathy because this employee is making their job difficult. Managers start to look to be rid of the issue.

  • The employer places the employee in an office based/sat down job. Probably one of the worst things to do with a lumbar spine injury.   

  • The employee carries on doing the same work the same way. Eventually, suffering a relapse. Leading to time off AGAIN!

  • Repeat steps 1-5 above 

At Elite Force Safety, we know the common mistakes industries make. In consistently making these mistakes, industries are suffering large financial and personnel losses. Our multifaceted approach would look to empower employees and managers with the correct knowledge in spotting mental strain in themselves and others in the workplace. From a practical element, we can support training when the employee returns to work, which would include recommendations and also explain why and how MSD injury occurred in the first place. Most importantly, we demonstrate to the employee personally how to massively reduce the chance of the MSD reoccurring, by using correct techniques doing the jobs they do.

A mentally and physically fit employee, is a happy and productive employee. A company that does not want that, is not worth working for.  

So in my opinion, the answer to the question ‘Is there a link between Musculoskeletal Disorders and Mental Health?’  is YES!

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