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What are chronic MSDs and how can we manage them at work?

As Europe’s workforce ages, the chances of workers having or developing chronic musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are increasing. But with the right support, workers with chronic conditions can continue working – a benefit to them, employers and society as a whole.


How do chronic MSDs impact workers and businesses?

Chronic MSDs, or rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) as they are more commonly referred to in the medical field, are problems that affect the muscles, bones, joints and soft tissues. Although the causes are not always work-related, many are long-term conditions that can either be aggravated by work or impact on someone’s ability to work altogether.

Some specific chronic diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, which affects the joints, and sciatica which refers to pain radiating along the sciatic nerve, which runs down one or both legs from the lower back. There are a range of causes for RMDs, including inflammatory diseases, ageing, injuries, congenital and developmental factors. Sometimes the cause of musculoskeletal pain remains unclear, it is described as shoulder pain or back pain, etc.

Chronic conditions can cause persistent pain that can make repetitive movements difficult, cause stiffness, affect sleep, and cause anxiety and stress (particularly about the inability to work). The impact on businesses can also be significant. For example, the total cost of work-related MSDs is estimated at over €163bn, including productivity loss and turnover costs for employers (33%), workers’ income and health-related quality of life losses (65%).

It is important to note that chronic conditions affect people in very different ways. Some conditions come and go and people can have good or bad days, but importantly sufferers can generally learn to work around their problems and can, with the right adjustments, usually continue to work.

How to manage chronic MSDs at work

Prevention should always be the starting point, assessing and reducing risks to ensure that the workplace is safer and designed to promote good musculoskeletal health. Action should also be taken to reduce stress at work, encourage early intervention, accommodate adjustments and support workers absent due to chronic conditions to return to work through effective planning.

Maintaining good ergonomics and health and safety standards helps the entire workforce, which is why workplaces should be planned with inclusion in mind. Additional accommodations can be made for individuals if and when necessary.

Just a few simple measures are often all that is needed to allow people with chronic conditions to keep working. This could involve using different work equipment, adapting working hours or redistributing tasks. EU-OSHA’s report on Working with chronic MSDs — good practice advice provides a whole host of options and practical advice.

Employers have an important role to play in terms of cooperation, understanding and supporting workers. Although most workers with chronic conditions are motivated and try to avoid missing work, there is a cost to the employers business if they lose valuable expertise and knowledge from the workforce. Employers also have responsibilities under occupational safety and health legislation to assess and prevent risks to groups who may be particularly sensitive. Under employment equality legislation, they have a duty to accommodate workers with disabilities.

Supporting workers with chronic conditions – a win-win for all concerned

The ageing workforce in Europe not only makes it essential to support workers with chronic conditions, it is also worth doing from a business perspective, and benefits society as a whole. Even without access to external help or resources, many simple measures can be taken to allow workers to stay in employment. Measures such as ergonomic improvements or flexible hours can benefit the entire workforce and making work safer and easier for the whole workforce may enable someone with a chronic condition to continue working. Therefore, the aim should always be to provide inclusive workplaces.

We will be publishing a series of articles covering the topic of chronic MSDs up to the end of June, so be sure to visit the chronic MSDs priority area webpage to find more reports, case studies and other campaign resources on the topic. And don’t forget to follow the campaign on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn for further updates.