Back pain, sore shoulders and aching limbs: The physical impact of paying the bills

You’re probably reading this from your desk, hunched over with your wrists at an odd angle, wondering why your back is aching so much before you’ve reached 70. 

If not from your desk, then perhaps you’re crumpled up in bed or on the sofa as you work from home. Because let’s be honest – having a good cup of tea curled up under a cosy blanket makes the working day easier.

But it can be hard to get out of these habits once you’re used to them. Maintaining proper posture and taking breaks isn’t always at the forefront of our minds when we’re powering through a chaotic work day.

But even though you might assume that these sedentary jobs means less chance of injuring yourself, that is not the case. 

The same flexibility that a role on a laptop offers us, is the same reason some of us begin experiencing premature pain across our bodies. 

It turns out that being hunched over a screen, with our wrists balanced on the edge of a desk for hours, isn’t all that great for us.

Repetitive actions can severely damage our bodies when we’re not looking after ourselves, causing strain and pain across all parts of our bodies.

But surely it can’t affect us that much, right?

Unfortunately, we have analysed recent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) data that showed that since 2019, just under half a million people were recorded to be suffering with a work-related musculoskeletal disorder.

In fact, more years are lived with musculoskeletal disability than any other long term condition.

And a musculoskeletal disorder is not something you want to turn a blind eye to. 

These disorders can affect a huge range of the body including the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. 

People who struggle with musculoskeletal disorders sometimes complain that their entire body will ache. Some even talk about sensations of pulled or overworked muscles, and even twitching and burning.

There are six different workplace related types:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
  • Tendonitis.
  • Muscle / Tendon strain.
  • Ligament Sprain.
  • Tension Neck Syndrome.
  • Thoracic Outlet Compression.
  • Rotator Cuff Tendonitis.
  • Epicondylitis.

In fact, the NHS has found more than 200 musculoskeletal conditions which affect up to 1 in 4 of the adult population (many being young and of working age). That’s around 9.6 million adults and 12,000 children!

We wanted to highlight just how important it is to be aware of the side effects of repetitive actions and poor posture.

So, we analysed data from HSE and the NHS, to reveal the true extent of musculoskeletal disorders in the UK’s working population.

Your aching back is not uncommon, as the data showed that 37% of M.D cases in 2019/20 were in the patient’s back. This was followed by 44% of upper limbs and necks and 19% of lower limbs. 

In fact, In 2019/20 musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 30% of all work-related ill health cases

So all of that unnecessary strain you might be putting on your body when you’re crouched behind your screen can really have an affect on your long term health.

The main work factors that are causing these work-related musculoskeletal disorders are manual handling, working in awkward or tiring positions, and keyboard or repetitive work.

Our analysis highlighted that whilst there is no one gender experiencing musculoskeletal disorder, 16 to 34 report lower rates compared to all ages. In fact, 45 and over have reported the most amount of disorders, however this could be because they’ve been working for much longer than their younger counterparts. 

Looking further into HSE’s data, we found that workers in skilled trades occupations such as processing and machine operatives, as well as caring and leisure are more likely to develop a disorder.

The data revealed that for between 2017 to 2020, skilled trades occupations had 2,150 cases per 100,000 people employed. Meanwhile processing, and machine operatives had 1,720 cases per 100,000 people employed – whilst caring and leisure had 1,680 cases per 100,000 people employed.

We can also reveal the industries that are reporting the most amount of musculoskeletal disorders within their workforce. 

The data showed that between 2017-2020, the average number of cases across all industries was 1,130 cases per 100,000 workers.

However, forestry and fishing had the most cases, with a rate of 2,030 cases per 100,000 workers. This was followed by the construction industry, with a rate of 2,020 cases per 100,000 workers.

Human health and social work activities came in third, reporting a rate of 1,420 cases per 100,000 workers. These industries all had significantly higher rates than the average for all industries.

These are just some of the reasons employers should maintain high standards of health and safety, as these issues can severely impact productivity.

In fact, we found that according to the Labour Force Survey, 8.9 million working days were lost due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders in 2019/20. That’s 27% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health. 

Our analysis of the HSE data found that conditions affecting the back made up 22% of lost working days, (an estimated 11.2 days lost per case). Meanwhile, upper limbs and neck conditions accounted for half of all working days lost (20.8 days lost per case), and  the lower limbs issues made up 28% (26.7 days lost per case).

But those days were not spent relaxing. 

Our analysis of NHS data highlighted the enormous impact on the quality of life these disorders can have. From day-to-day pain to serious long term impacts – they’re often associated with a large number of comorbidities, including diabetes, depression and obesity. 

Putting your health at the forefront of your priorities is key to avoiding these types of workplace injuries. But don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to avoid developing any issues!

Our experts have put together some easy to follow tips. They’re simple, easy to follow and a great way to get into good habits.

  • Always make sure you’re using a separate keyboard and mouse to your screen. This way your laptop can be put on a stand, keeping the screen opened at eye level. These steps will prevent you from hunching over and reduce any neck or upper limb pain you may be feeling.
  • Always use your laptop on a flat surface where you can fully rest and support your arms and wrists. This will take the pressure off your joints as you do repetitive movements, lessening the chance of developing conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome. 
  • Taking regular breaks if you’re moving a lot will reduce the stress on your muscles and joints. However, if you’re working at a screen, eye breaks are also key to reduce eye strain.
  • Having secure lower back support when sat at a desk can lessen the strain on your spine and prevent any back injuries. Keep your back support stable and try to straighten your shoulders, ensuring that your desk equipment is within reach.
  • Finally, make sure these changes become habits. Signs of neck, shoulder and back problems gradually come on over time. Often building up into an unsolvable problem, before you have a chance to rectify it. 

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