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Reducing the cost of back pain for employees and employers

September 17, 2015

Poor posture at work can lead to serious long-term health problems for many individuals, often triggering severe stress and anxiety in sufferers.

There is compelling evidence to indicate people who sit for more than four hours at a time are at greater risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes – a condition that has risen by almost 60% in the past 10 years.

Back pain caused by bad posture is an issue affecting around 70 per cent of the nation’s workforce and is now the second most common complaint among employees. Few will be aware that poor posture can also contribute to knee pain, fallen arches and even cause poor bladder control.

With back pain damaging the health of employees and costing businesses in sick days, it’s clear that employers should do everything they can to eliminate poor posture in their workplace.

With posture, the position from which movement begins and ends, if you start in the wrong place you either perform a good movement pattern that keeps the joint in the wrong place (because that is where you started) or you perform a faulty movement pattern to get you into a better position. Neither is good for you.

All movement creates wear and tear on the joints, ligaments and tendons but poor posture and faulty movement patterns create uneven deterioration in places where the body finds it hard to deal with. Over time this will create injury, inflammation, pain and weakness.

Thanks in part to our more sedentary lifestyle and the reduction in physical labour for many, problems with the back in particular will often manifest themselves through increased curving in the upper back, a forward head posture, rounded shoulders and a flat lower back.

Sitting down for more than 4 hours a day can be harmful to health

In recent years a variety of major international research has produced startling evidence that sitting more than four consecutive hours each day can lead to a reduced metabolic rate and causes the enzymes responsible for burning fat to shut down. This can lead to other more significant concerns.

The top 9 health risks associated with prolonged sitting are:

1. Obesity
The evidence linking physical activity patterns with obesity is increasing rapidly.

2. High blood pressure
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage the body in many ways.

3. Muscle degeneration
Prolonged sitting leads to tight back muscles and soft abdominals which lead to bad posture which can exaggerate the spine’s natural arch.

4. Back and neck pain and inflexible spines
Spines which don’t move become inflexible and susceptible to damage in mundane activities. If most of your sitting occurs at a desk at work, craning your neck toward a keyboard or tilting your head to cradle a phone while typing can strain the cervical vertebrae and lead to permanent imbalances.

5. Osteoporosis
Weight bearing activities such as standing, walking and running stimulate hip and lower body bones to grow thicker, denser and stronger. Remaining still has the opposite effect.

6. Depression
Moving muscles pumps fresh blood and oxygen through the brain and triggers the release of all sorts of brain enhancing chemicals. When we are sedentary for long periods everything slows, including brain function.

7. Dementia
Many of the risk factors linked to dementia, including diabetes, depression and blood pressure can be affected by a sedentary lifestyle.

8. Heart Disease
Muscles burn less fat and blood flows more sluggishly during a long sit, allowing fatty assets to more easily clog the heart.

9. Diabetes
Our pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that carries glucose to cells for energy. Cells in idle muscles don’t respond as readily to insulin so the pancreas produces excessive amounts, increasing the risk of diabetes.

Lower the health risks by correcting your posture

Whilst adopting a healthier lifestyle in general will help lessen your susceptibility to any of these issues, concentrating on improving your position when sitting is also essential – even though it may be difficult in the beginning.

Correcting your posture may feel awkward at first because your body has become so used to the position you have been keeping it in. You need to retrain your body to sit and stand correctly which can improve your body awareness.

Initially, this may require disciplined, conscious effort but with a bit of practice, good posture will become second nature and a positive step to helping your back, neck and spine in the long term.

When you slouch in a chair you may feel more comfortable than sitting upright because it requires less effort from our muscles and your body will be used to adopting this position. But like slouched standing, it can place strain on already sensitised muscles and soft tissues.

Strive for perfect alignment

To help maintain a correct standing posture, imagine a string attached to the top of your head pulling you upwards. The idea is to keep your body in perfect alignment, maintaining the spine’s natural curvature, neck straight and shoulders parallel with the hips.

Keep your shoulders back relaxed, pull in your abdomen, keep your feet about hip distance apart and balance your weight evenly on both feet. Try not to tilt your head forward, backward or sideways and keep your legs straight but knees relaxed.

Standing with a flat back happens when your pelvis is tucked in and your lower back is straight instead of naturally curved, causing you to stoop forward. People with a flat back often find it difficult standing for long periods.

This posture is often caused by muscle imbalances, which encourage you to adopt such a position. Spending long periods sitting down can also contribute to a flat back. A flat back also tends to make you lean your neck and head forwards, which can cause neck and upper back strain.

Corrective exercise is a form of exercise that focuses primarily on improving posture and movement patterns. Whilst exercises to strengthen your core, buttock, neck and read shoulder muscles and back extensions are commonly recommended to help correct a flat back, if done incorrectly they can make the problem worse.

Corrective exercise focuses on strengthening long and weak muscles and lengthening short and tight muscles, thus removing imbalances and causing a lasting change in the position of skeleton which we call improved posture.

Prolonged use of computers and phones can lead to a bad back

If you spend several hours a day working on a computer, you may unconsciously find yourself adopting poor postural habits, such as hunching over your keyboard. This position is usually a sign that you have a tight chest and a weak upper back. Over time, this type of posture can cause shoulder and upper back stiffness.

When hunching over a laptop or PC, your head may tend to lean forward which can lead to poor posture. Mobile device usage can also encourage you to hang your head and can cause similar problems dubbed ‘text neck’.

Holding your phone handset between your ear and shoulder can place strain on the muscles of the neck, upper back and shoulders. The neck and shoulders are not designed to hold this position for any length of time.

Over time this posture can place strain on the muscles and other soft tissues and is likely to encourage muscle imbalances between the left and right side of your neck. Try to get into the habit of holding the phone with your hand or use a hands-free device.

Use these 4 corrective exercises to improve posture

Here are four simple exercises you can do at work, or at home, to help improve posture specifically aimed at the back. You can expect to see and feel results within weeks;

1. Stretch it out

Every 20 minutes, try to get up for a couple minutes and stand, stretch, walk round the office. You could also try standing each time you answer the phone.

2. Sit up straight

Ensure your work station is set up for good posture and sit up with a strong, tall posture but relax your shoulders and let them drop. It may take a while to master but it is worth it.

3. Support your spine

Give your spine a bit of help and build up strength in your back extensors, neck flexors, pelvic muscles and side muscles. Building endurance in the spine and trunk muscle groups is also important, allowing us to stand for long periods without suffering back pain.

4. Lift your weight

Try incorporating weight-bearing exercises into your daily routine, like walking, stair climbing and even weight lifting. People who walk regularly tend to have better bone density in later life, so forget calling colleagues and walk around the office to talk to them.

There are many other factors which affect posture such as the relationships between organs, muscles and joints, as well as diet & nutrition. Those that think buying new chairs or desks for their staff will resolve the issue will soon realise it is merely papering over the crack.

Businesses need to help fix the crack instead; not only will the employee benefit but so will the business on the whole as absenteeism is likely to become less of a problem and an improvement in productivity can be expected.

About the author

This guide has been written for ByteStart by Jim Thorp. After life in the RAF and a career as a professional rugby player with Sale, Jim is now the clinical head, and lead therapist at JT Ethos, the Midlands’ leading Corrective Exercise Expert.

More help on managing staff

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