The workplace can contribute to the onset of back pain in a number of ways. Sitting for long periods of time, sitting incorrectly, lifting heavy objects and repetitive activities can lead to short-term discomfort or longer-term damage. If you already suffer with back pain, the workplace can present additional challenges. At home, you can moderate your activity to take account of any discomfort or mobility issues, but at work, you have to undertake your assigned duties, which can put you at risk of making any existing issues worse.
It’s important to realise that responsibility for protecting your back (and your general health and wellbeing) at work is divided between you and your employer. You might be familiar with the term, ‘ergonomics’, which essentially means ensuring the workplace fits the needs of each worker. In this context, it involves your employer taking steps to design the working environment in such as a way that you can do your job comfortably and without putting yourself at any undue risk.
How you take care of your back at work depends upon your type of employment. So, below, we take a look at what to consider in roles that require lots of sitting and those that involve long periods of standing, bending and lifting.
Avoiding back pain when sitting
Sitting for long periods can have a negative impact upon our health, not least the risk of causing or exacerbating back pain. If you are office based or spend a lot of time driving as part of your work, it is important you take steps to take care of your back. One of the best things you can do is take regular breaks. Every 30 minutes or so, spend a few minutes standing or walking. If you have the opportunity, take a longer walk on your lunch break, too.
When it comes to employment that involves sitting for long periods, one crucial risk factor is correct alignment. Your employer has a responsibility to ensure your office chair is adjustable and encourages good posture and a healthy back. In fact, your employer should carry out a risk assessment to determine whether all the office furniture and equipment provided allows you to adopt good posture and does not put pressure on your joints. Likewise, if you drive for a living, you should have a seat that is adjustable and adequately sprung.
You can play your part too, by sitting correctly at your workstation. This means placing both feet on the floor, distributing your weight evenly on both your hips and keeping your back straight. You should sit close to the desk, keep your shoulders relaxed by resting your arms on the desk or armrests and avoid swivelling in your chair using your waist. Also ensure you don’t have to overreach, to pick up the phone, for example.
Avoiding back pain when standing and lifting
Standing all day on the shop-floor or working in a role that involves lots of bending and lifting can be bad news for your back. It is therefore important that you raise any concerns with your employer, who, again, should carry out a risk assessment and make any necessary changes to make your work less physically demanding.
You should also be aware that there are rules relating to lifting and moving objects at work (called the Manual Handling Operations Regulations). These rules put the onus on your employer to ensure health and safety measures are in place for any activities that require lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling or carrying objects. This includes the provision of lifting aids, such as forklifts or hoists.
If you do undertake any of these risky activities, use the proper technique. This includes not picking up heavy items from ground level, not twisting or jerking when you lift, maintaining good balance and bending your knees to avoid putting all the strain on your back. Of course, if you already have back problems, you should avoid anything that could lead to further injury.
General advice for avoiding back pain at work
In addition to specific considerations relating to the workplace, there are some general tips for minimising your risk of back pain, or aggravating an existing problem.
- Maintain good overall health: Losing weight and taking regular exercise can both contribute to a healthy back by reducing the pressure on your spine and strengthening the surrounding muscles. Walking and swimming are both good choices. However, if you suffer with back pain, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise regime.
- Invest in good back support: Back and lumbar support devices can help by taking some of the pressure off your back and preventing you from going beyond a comfortable range of motion. If you do experience back pain, or think you are at risk, the right support can offer a solution.
- Be aware of your posture at all times: It’s all too easy to get lazy with our posture, letting our shoulders sag and slumping when we sit. However, if you want to avoid back pain, it’s important to keep your shoulders straight and your back long when sitting or walking. Good spinal alignment can make a real difference to your back.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, from 2014 to 2015, there were around 223,000 cases of work-related back problems, resulting in nearly 3 million working days lost. While it’s true that the workplace can be an environment that can contribute to back pain, by taking some sensible steps and engaging with your employer, these risks can be minimised. If you are experiencing back pain, it is important you seek professional medical advice to determine the cause, so you can take the right steps to manage and treat the condition.