Though employers have made strides in addressing safety and wellness for their workers, the prevalence of musculoskeletal injuries and ongoing pain continues to plague workplaces and contribute to significant costs to both workers and their organizations. From the manufacturing floor to the office, worker health has never presented a bigger challenge for employers—the economic drive toward constantly increasing productivity has added stress and fatigue to the list of worries for administrators and managers, while the opioid crisis has contributed another level of complexity to the already-perplexing issue of chronic pain management amongst workers. With medication usage now a major red flag for both private sector companies and the government agencies tasked with finding a solution to America’s narcotic drug dependency epidemic, it has become more important than ever for organizations to find new ways to keep their workers pain-free and productive on the job.
Fortunately, the new problems haven’t stalled innovation in the field of pain management and worker wellness. Now more than ever, companies and their leaders are turning to outside-the-box solutions that address injury prevention and chronic pain at the source, aiming to mitigate the risk factors that have led to musculoskeletal pain becoming a major complaint for over 36% percent of social security disability claims across the nation in 2017.
Understanding the Pain Problem
As work schedules have become more demanding and stress has elevated the risk of injury, musculoskeletal pain has placed a significant burden on employers in all industries. In a 2011 report on pain management, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) indicated that the annual cost of chronic pain to employers in the United States amounts to around $600 billion, with musculoskeletal pain accounting for the largest share of treatment and claims expenditures. This cost exceeds $1 trillion when adding in the cost of absenteeism, presenteeism and the impact of fatigue. And the problem is hardly limited to one-time injuries with quick recovery periods—in fact, 42% of adults over 20 years of age report that chronic pain lasts longer than a year. In total, more money is spent on care for chronic pain in America than any of diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, and the indirect costs of absenteeism, presenteeism, and fatigue related to pain can be utterly staggering.
However, it’s important to note that the way workers deal with their chronic pain has shifted in recent years. While about one in four workers experiences chronic pain, 9 out of 10 of those choose to remain on the job, working through their pain. This introduces new hurdles for employers who want to maintain a baseline of performance and productivity from their workers while also providing care. The balance lies in learning how organizations can help their employees manage their pain without losing work days to costly physical therapy programs.
Solving the Pain Problem
So what can employers do to address chronic pain amongst their workers, keeping in mind the unique challenges of today’s economic landscape? The answer lies in a multi-pronged approach that addresses not just every facet of the worker’s experience, but also the administrative perspective on chronic pain, with programs and training that should trickle down throughout the organization.
Holistic Pain Management
Case studies have demonstrated that holistic worker health initiatives offer positive results when it comes to alleviating the pain that workers experience on a daily basis. Employers should take steps to review their job sites from every angle, taking advantage of on-site observation and ergonomic reviews that can provide a detailed assessment of the unique challenges of a specific workplace. Ergonomics is a particularly effective tactic in addressing chronic pain—so many cases of chronic pain develop over time on a continuum of severity, beginning with minor nuisances from poor tool or workstation design, or even issues with the layout of a worksite. For instance: a worker may continue to use a flawed tool or overexert themselves reaching for something above the head, despite the obstacles to their productivity, simply because management has not taken the time to assess how environmental factors may contribute to chronic pain. An ergonomic assessment can provide an accurate picture of how the environment affects employees on a daily basis and offer detailed recommendations for change, from workstation and tool design to floor layouts, hazard removal, and shelving fixes.
While ergonomic reviews can help mitigate pain and discomfort in the long term, adding a manual therapy component will bring about immediate relief for employees while long-term changes are being made. Employees who work for years in environments that require repetitive motion or even carry old injuries into the job with them will need more than ergonomics to ensure their chronic pain is being addressed.
Similarly, a holistic program of wellness must also factor in the totality of the worker’s physical experience, which includes both their bodily characteristics and their behaviors on the job. Often, chronic pain can be traced back to poor technique—for instance, lower back pain accounts for something like $100 billion in costs to employers each year, and is the leading cause of pain among workers worldwide. But the problem persists, largely because workers continue to perform lifting tasks without receiving proper training on how to perform those actions safely. A proactive training and education program can highlight these issues for new hires and for long-tenured employees who need corrections to their techniques. Likewise, technique training can occur on-site by a visiting specialist.
Chronic pain continues to plague workforces, but new tools available to employers remove any barrier to addressing the problem from the top down. The chief concern of managers should be a keen understanding of how pain affects their workers—whether this means detailed on-site analysis, manual therapy, ergonomic reviews, or even assistance from technology like artificial intelligence and wearables, which can do much of the analytical work required for a full picture of the health of a workforce. As with any change, the fight against chronic pain must start at the top—it’s up to managers and company leaders to take initiative on behalf of their employees, and doing so is a critical step in establishing the positive culture of safety and wellness that intelligent organizations seek to create.