Knowledge knocks down sick leave

30th of August 2017 Article by Lotte Printz
Knowledge knocks down sick leave

Back pain is among the most costly and widespread conditions in Denmark, however mere knowledge is likely to lower work absence, writes Lotte Printz.

There’s no easy way to lower sick leave. Or so it has been said. But now it seems that something as simple as words can do the trick. All it takes to lower back pain-related sick leave considerably are two one-hour talks on basic anatomy and modern pain models. And that’s good news for the cleaning business as well where back pain is not uncommon when cleaners call in sick.

Danish researchers tested nearly 500 public sector employees, predominantly manual workers, and the information pamphlet and the two talks given to half of them, the intervention group, not only halved back pain-related absence, but also resulted in pain reduction and in the participants seeking less treatment in the 12-month follow-up period.

They still experienced pain, the intervention group – but they were not as likely to take a sick day because of the pain as the control group that did not participate in the talks. In fact, the study showed that the intervention group was 83 per cent more likely to go to work even though they were experiencing pain and felt, in addition, less sad and less bothered by the pain at those times.

“Pain is easier to cope with when it’s not accompanied by worries or uncertainty,” says Tom Bendix, supervisor of the study, talking to the Danish National Research Centre for the Environment.

The talks reassured the participants that back pain is often harmless and caused by temporary muscle tension and that diseases such as disc degeneration are more often down to genetics rather than physical activity – whether leisure or work.

Only a few years back, a common perception was that you should “pay attention to” your back and move in certain ways. Now it is common knowledge in this field among back specialists that this may do more harm than good. If we experience back pain, which most of us do at times, it’s much better to use natural walking patterns and focus as little as possible on the pain.

In this study there was no other intervention than information – no physical exercises or back scans were involved. So it all lies in knowledge and attitudes towards back pain and sick leave. To tackle beliefs that have been hard to eliminate.

“It is very encouraging that such a simple step can influence something as important as sick leave,” says physiotherapist and PhD Pernille Frederiksen who was head of the study.

At Danske Service, the association for the Danish cleaning trade, they also welcome the results of the study and do not reject taking on the idea.

“This is definitely interesting and very much in line with what our focus lies on. How to prevent injuries and worn-out workers is at the centre of our attention. We take an interest in employees being happy and healthy, physically functional and of course, bringing down sick leave is an important element in that respect, too, says Malene Jæpelt, head of department at Danske Service.

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