Returning to Work following a Back Injury: Consider Safety, Comfort and Sustainability

Contrary to stories in the media about injured workers attempting to “work” the disability system for secondary gain, evidence suggests that most workers prefer to return to employment if they are able to do so. According to Robinson and Loeser (2012), the majority of work injuries (about 70%) do not result in disability claims. In addition, disability payouts rarely compensate for the physical, social, economic and financial burdens of having to leave the workforce. For most workers, being employed is tied to positive self-concept, and the feeling of being a productive member of society and breadwinner for the family (Robinson & Loeser, 2012).

While an isolated episode of back pain may be a temporary setback for some, recurrent episodes that lead to chronic pain present a bigger challenge. Assuming the initial injury was workplace-related, what does the individual need to do to reduce the risk of re-injury after returning to work? A good first step is work hardening: physical therapy programs created specifically to address musculoskeletal problems that led to the injury. Strengthening and reducing muscle imbalances and pacing techniques may make a significant difference here. Particularly for workers who put in long hours on jobs that require a lot of physical labor, periodic breaks can make a big difference (Feinberg et al., 2015).

An older study on the relationship between the work environment and low back pain in men employed in physically demanding jobs found that the following activities correlated significantly to developing back pain: standing and lifting; carrying and pushing; reaching and stretching; chair support; driving vehicles and using vibrating equipment (Damkot et al., 1982). In some cases, some changes in, for example, lifting and carrying techniques may reduce the risk of back injury. Ergonomic modifications to office chairs, desks, computer monitors, etc., can also reduce the risk of injury recurrence.

Not all of the factors influencing return-to-work are related to physical health. There is also a significant emotional component. Areas contributing to workers’ emotional well-being include the employer’s willingness to discuss flexible schedules during the transition period, and similarly, support from co-workers (Anema et al., 2004). In some cases, employers may need to temporarily modify work responsibilities, or task-shift between co-workers. A positive attitude within the workplace goes a long way towards motivating injured individuals to return to work and stay at the job long-term.

The saying that when one person wins, we all win, applies here. When an employer loses a worker due to disability, they lose that individual’s business acumen, professional connections and job-specific skills. In the case of long-term employees, these can be big shoes to fill. Given that returning to work benefits both the employer and employee, the best use of resources is to support healthy transitions through patient and employer education, functional training, and ergonomic modifications as necessary. As our population ages and individuals extend their careers beyond the traditional retirement age, creating a healthy workplace environment carries the potential for huge advances in innovation and productivity. Those sorts of rewards are worth the investment in collaborative problem-solving.

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