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Tom Phillips

Poor clinical & workplace support for musculoskeletal disorders leaving hundreds of thousands facing lost income, job insecurity & early retirement

Authors: Tom Phillips Tom Phillips

10 December 2012

A new report published today (10 December 2012) by The Work Foundation warns that a lack of positive practice to support people with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in work is leaving hundreds of thousands at risk of lost earnings, reduced productive working time and early retirement, with an accompanying strain on both household incomes and the UK welfare system.

With musculoskeletal disorders the leading cause of people going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the report clearly shows that government reform must not stop at helping people back into work. Healthcare professionals, employers and policymakers must also make keeping individuals in employment a top priority.

Launched as part of the Fit for Work Coalition UK, Taking the strain: the impact of musculoskeletal disorders on work and home life draws on a survey 809 people living with MSDs in the UK. It shows that: 

    • Just over half of employed respondents reported a loss of earnings due to the condition; 
    • Three quarters of retired respondents said their condition had influenced their decision to 
    retire, with the majority having left the labour market before reaching the age of fifty-five; 
    • Of those not in work, 57.4% had been the primary earner for their household before leaving a 
    paid job; two-thirds of these households now rely on welfare support; 
    • One in four reported concerns about remaining in work due to their condition; 
    • On average, respondents experienced 43.9% productivity loss at work.

Despite MSDs being the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, the survey suggests that the clinical support available to individuals with MSDs is often insufficient to keep them in work. It took an average of 4.22 years to diagnose an MSD, and even after diagnosis, one in ten respondents had to wait more than a year to receive treatment. Furthermore, only half of respondents had discussed their employment with a GP.

Ailsa Bosworth, Fit for Work UK member and Chief Executive of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, said,

“The government’s reforms are supposed to help people with long-term conditions return to work, but this survey shows people with MSDs aren’t receiving the support they need. This needs a concerted effort across government departments to incentivise the NHS to get more involved in helping patients stay in work, so that patients and their families keep their heads above water.”

The survey also suggests that having an MSD can compromise job quality, with over one in three saying their condition had affected their access to training and development and just under 60% feeling it prevented them from reaching their full potential at work. As a particularly vulnerable group in an insecure labour market, individuals with MSDs face being trapped in low quality jobs that do not match their level of skills.

The findings also raise concerns about employers making reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of employees with MSDs, with one in three respondents having received no form of adjustment to their working time, work environment, or work duties when they required it.

The report argues that ongoing government reforms aimed at supporting people with long-term conditions back into work must be matched by incentives targeting employers and health care professionals to support people with MSDs to retain and get the most out of employment.
Professor Stephen Bevan, Fit for Work UK President and director at The Work Foundation, said,

“Improving labour productivity and helping employers retain valuable skills are key to the economic recovery. Policymakers need to ensure public services are coordinated in their approach to supporting employment of people with long-term conditions. It is troubling that despite ‘work’ being one of the indicators of the NHS Outcomes Framework, only a third of respondents had had return-to-work conversations with health care professionals.”

The report makes a series of recommendations for policymakers, healthcare professionals, commissioners, employers, line managers and individuals.

Notes to Editors:

1. The survey covered 809 respondents, the majority with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, spondyloarthropathy or two or more MSDs. The sample is not necessarily representative of the wider population of MSD sufferers.

690,000 adults in the UK have rheumatoid arthritis.
Over 200,000 people in the UK have Ankylosing spondylitis.

In the UK, lost working time attributable to MSDs cost the economy £7 billion in 2007.

2. Fit for Work UK

Fit for Work UK is a partnership of individuals and organisations, including The Work Foundation, Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance, British Telecom, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society, National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, and Royal College of General Practitioners. The Fit for Work UK Coalition is supported by a grant from Abbott. Secretariat support is provided by Weber Shandwick.

3. The Work Foundation

The Work Foundation aims to be the leading independent, international authority on work and its future. The Work Foundation is part of Lancaster University – an alliance that enables both organisations to further enhance their impact. The Work Foundation has been undertaking research on behalf of Fit for Work since its inception.