How to Avoid 9 Mistakes of Managing Work-Related MSD That Worsens Sickness Absence Rate
how to avoid mistakes of managing work-related MSD that worsens sickness absence
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Your sickness absence rate has gone up.

And another employee is off-sick.

‘Back pain’, he said.

You didn’t even know he was in pain. And now he is off-sick.

How are you to keep up!

Yes, you know MSD must be managed. You try your best. Training, assessments, toolbox talks. Yet it seems like your employees move from complaining of pain straight to being off sick.

It’s like a conveyor belt. They get on it and it’s a downhill dash to sickness absence.

’What are you doing wrong?’’  

‘’Are you missing something?’’

Don’t panic. 

It’s not like you to studied MSD.

How are you to know the tell-tale signs symptoms of MSD?

But, It doesn’t have to be like that.

You might be missing out on some vital details. Mistakes that although little, are accelerating your sickness absence rate.

Here are some of the mistakes I have seen over the years working in occupational health. And how to  rectified them and reduce your sickness absence rate.

Mistake #1: You Are Waiting Too Long

delaying worsens sickness absence rate
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Have you heard of those cases?

A doctor informing a patient that their prognosis ain’t great because they waited too long. They’ve had the disease for some time and delayed seeing their physician. Now their diseases have worsened.

It has even happened to you.

Because, it has happened to me too.

After the birth of my first child, I started experiencing neck pain. T’was all the baby carrying. Quite common amongst new mothers. I kept putting it off. After all, I knew what the problem was., right? Eight months down the line, my symptoms had spread to my shoulder blades. I had numbness and a searing pain in the right shoulder blade.

Oh my! was that a nuisance. If only I had addressed it at the onset.

It’s the same at work with your employees.

Have you been hearing pain complaint from your employees? In whispers? In writing? From their reps? Or even line manager? And you didn’t do anything about it.

Think of that employee that went off sick from MSD. Was that the first time you heard they had an injury? Or had there been complains before then?

You get my gist, right?

The longer you wait to resolve musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), the poorer the outcome. 


Solution: Get a simple system for your employees to report pain complaint. 

Be it a twinge. A sore. A searing pain. Create a system where your employees can with ease report to you. They report to you, via a form or through their line manager (Supervisor).

Then when you receive the complaint, follow it through. 

Assessment. Evaluation. Review. Analysis. Whatever you need to do to control the MSD risk.


Mistake #2: Your System is Too Convoluted

make injury reporting system not convoluted
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 If you’ve live in the UK, you might have heard about the rail repairs at London Bridge. One of the busiest underground station in the UK that overran its deadline. This repair led to many months of delays and poor journey service for commuters.

So naturally, commuters were entitled to compensation.

But quite recently, I heard a news report that very few had applied for compensation. 


One of the issue was that the compensation application was too cumbersome. The information was difficult to locate on the website. The form lengthy. The system was so convoluted that people gave up. They couldn’t be asked. They wanted the repairs finished so they could get on with their lives.


Solution: Design Your Injury Reporting System to be Straightforward

Is your system of reporting pain complaints too cumbersome? 

How many chains of command do they have to go through for someone to come out to them? Is the method of reporting at their fingertips? Or do they have to rummage through your intranet? Scouring for the form hidden somewhere in the system.

Make it simple. Accessible. Personable.

Who should they call when they want to report? When would you come out to them? How would they know you have received their complaint?

No. I don’t mean a generic email reply:

‘Thank you for reporting. We would get back to you soon. 

P.S: Please do not reply to this email!’

See what I mean?

Make it easy for your employees to report an injury. And you will decelerate your sickness absence rate.


Mistake #3: You Only See The Statistics in Your Sickness Absence Rate

Who doesn’t love a visual story? Graphs, pie charts, bar charts, all coming together to tell the injury story of your employees.

How many were off sick? What illness they got? Which department? Which team was most affected?

So, you design this beautiful visual storyboard and pitch it to your bosses.

But is that all you’re doing? Gathering information. There is nothing wrong with that. But you should look beyond those number.

For every number lies a name. A name, a face. A face, a human. A human, a life. A life, a social connection. Family, spouse, kids, parents, neighbours, relatives…

A number means an injury. And that injury to your employee means it affects not their lives but work and their social network.

A father with back pain unable to play football with his kids. A daughter with carpal tunnel syndrome who can’t do the weekly shopping with elderly mum. A neighbour with neck pain can’t go with her neighbour friend to the hair salon. Not to mention they can’t come into work. Be productive and financially support their family.


Solution: Get to Know the Face Behind the Number of Your Sickness Absence Rate

Strip back those statistics and get to know your employee. Reach out to that injured employee and help them get back their lives. 

How can you help? What support do they need to come back to work? What sort of training or assisted work?

Return your employee back to their pre-injured state. And your statistics will tell a different story.


Mistake #4: Your Knowledge About MSD Limited 

No, I’m not saying you should know it like I do. It took me 5 years of studying. And I’m still learning.

So nope! Definitely not like me.

But learn the basics. 

What it is. Because MSD is a collective word for many diseases of the musculoskeletal system.

What about its risk factors? How does it occur in the workplace? The common injuries and how they occur? How to detect, control and prevent it? What metrics to measure?

You see what I mean. The basics.

Then will you begin to understand it better and be great at managing it. Like the idiom says, ‘Set a thief to catch a thief’.

Solution to Reduce Your Sickness Absence Rate

 All of these are covered in detail in our WMSD Awareness for Managers Training


Mistake #5: Given Your Employees Tools That Will Injure Them

work tools that injure worsens sickness absence
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Have you ever bought a dress that looked beautiful in display? But when you tried it at home it looked ‘bleh’? it didn’t fit, it looked ordinary. It didn’t matter how you wore the dress, it looked horrible. 

There was nothing wrong with the dress. But on you, it’s was a no-no. It has also happened to me.

Tools and work equipment are like that too. They work fine. The mouse clicks, the saw cuts, the wrench twists. But they are too small, too difficult to hold, too big to manoeuvre when your workers use them. A report on SHP Online discussed the increase of injury from using ergonomically ill-designed tools.

Are you buying tools that fit your employees or are you buying tools purely because they work?

Solution: Get Your Workers Involved in the Decision Making

Moreover, they are the ones that would be using the tools. Let them trial the tools and get their feedback. 

Buy work tools based on validation from your employees.


Mistake #6: Your Employees Are Untrained 

The trend has changed. 

I have seen it in my practice. Patients wants more information. They want you to tell them all you know about their ailment. They come with an article clipping. Information on a webpage or even a letter from their ‘physician friend’. They want me to know that they know (good, bad or irrelevant). 

But that has helped my practice. Because I know I would be asked diverse questions so  I prepare. 

The better I teach, the better my treatment becomes. My patient gets the how, what and whys. They better understand their injury. Learn to self-manage. Get motivated. Leave my clinic able to take care of themselves.

So, also will your employees be when you train them.


Solution: Train them to Self-Assess Their Symptoms to Reduce Your Sickness Absence Rate

Show them how to reach out and report their symptoms. 

Encourage them to make suggestions that would improve their working condition. 

Teach them how to protect themselves from MSD risks.

Teach. Educate. Encourage. And they would navigate away from sickness absence.


Mistake #7: You Don’t Say It Enough 

Marketers always say that customers need to see your product 7 times to create an impression before they buy. It’s called the Rule of 7.

How often do you talk about MSD in your workplace? How many times have they seen your poster, bulletin, case studies, memo, newsletter on MSD. 

Do you include it in your team meetings and toolbox talks? Does it excite, captivate or intrigue your employees? Or is it another monotonous and checkbox exercise?


Solutions: Create as Many Touchpoints

Touchpoints are points of contact and interaction to engage your employees. They are tools, services, products you put in place to allow your employee approach you. They are like signposts. Big middle-of-the-road billboards. Enticing your employees to get involved in reporting musculoskeletal injuries. 


Mistake #8: You Are Playing The ‘Either’ And ‘Or’ Game to Reduce Your Sickness Absence Rate

Do you hear a lot about preventing MSD? What of returning your absent staff to work? Do you think they are two separate management strategies? Are they addressed different? Probably by two people or departments, e.g., Health and Safety Department and HR Department?

But they aren’t. 

MSD Prevention programme and Return to Work (RTW) Programme are both ends of the same management process. Prevention is the beginning of your WMSD Management strategy. It stops your employees from getting injured. 

But, if they do get injured and they struggle to continue working and go off sick. The RTW Programme gets them off-sick and back to work and productivity.

These two programmes work hand in hand to keep your employee safe and in work. 


Solution: Bring The Two Programme Under One Roof

They are your tools for managing MSD. They should work in tandem and never in isolation. You shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. Not either and or, but both. 

Even if handled by two different department, work in partnership. Let the other know what you are doing. What’s trending. Who is getting injured. What the prevalent symptoms or injury are. 

In summary, the aim of MSD Management is to stop the injury journey. To get your employee to disembark. 

Because if your employee stays too long on that journey they might drive off into the sunset of absence. Never to be seen again. Thereby increasing your sickness absence rate.


Mistake #9: You Don’t Have A Key Person

Have you had your child in nursery? Did they have a key person? Someone assigned to take care if your child? 

Of course, you could speak to another nursery nurse. But the key person had a special bond with your child. They knew how your child fared that day. What they eat. When they had a nap. Who they played with. When they fell. What food or fruit they disliked. They even know your family. Your other kids, your kid’s relatives, pets, teddies. 

In short, your child’s key person knows the most about your child. 

It’s a win-win for everyone. You, your child, the nursery. 

Why does your child have a key person? Because your child is important.

Same with MSD. It’s still the single biggest cause of injury in the workplace world over. It one It’s one of the common reasons for increased sickness absence rate. It’s too big a fish to ignore.

Solution: Assign An Musculoskeletal (MSK) Health Champion

Someone who would be responsible for its management. A case worker. An advocate. A key person. A champion. Someone who knows the ins and outs of MSD. Someone with an interest to helping your employees work injury-free.

It streamlines your operation. Your employees know who to contact. No one falls through the crack. 

It’s a win-win for your employees and your company. You win averting MSD, reducing your sickness absence rate and retaining your employees.


We All Make Mistakes

Yes. I’m raising my two hands too. 

But learning how to avoid mistakes, makes us better at managing MSD. 

Look at your reporting process, your communication strategy, your tools. Are they helping or hindering your employees from getting injured? 

You need a few changes here and there. And you would be on course to stop your employees from getting on the slippery slope. Thereby, increasing your sickness absence rate.



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By Ugo Akpala-Alimi

Ugo is a Workplace Musculoskeletal Health Expert. She is a Chartered Physiotherapist with a masters degree in Ergonomics. 15+ years' experience. Treated 9,000+ patients. Conducted work assessments++. Worked with companies including BP, UKPN. On a mission to help managers reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders and create 'ouchless' workplaces. Hasn't yet gotten the magic elixir for injury-resistant workers (still busy concocting).


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