Back pain a big issue for small business

Back pain is a big issue for small business

Meet Mike. He’s 42, works in a small business, is in a lower socioeconomic demographic and has injured his back at work. Mike is Australia’s most at-risk injured worker.

Mike may be in a bad way, but so is his employer, according to the latest report from organisational health group Konekt, which shows small business is shouldering the bulk of the burden when it comes to workplace injury.

The Konekt Market Report analysed data from the group’s case-management database from the last six financial years. It found that musculoskeletal injuries had decreased compared to previous years, but that they still accounted for the majority of workplace injuries. Konekt product manager Nicholas Ward says the report found that the individual least likely to return to work, and who incurred the highest rehabilitation cost, was a male employed by a small business.

Our understanding of how to best manage back pain has changed in the last decade.

Small business vs large

‘Employees of large businesses cost an average of $1178 to rehabilitate and a return to work [RTW] rate of 85%, whereas small-business workers cost an average of $1404 to rehabilitate, with a RTW rate of 90%,’ Nicholas says.

This is where the ‘small’ in small business enters the equation. Part of the problem with getting Mike back to work is his employer may not have a job that he’s able to do post-injury.

It’s also a matter of perception. ‘Injured small-business employees felt that they did not receive the same level of support as their colleagues in larger organisations and it’s likely that this perception is contributing to the lower RTW rate,’ Nicholas says.

Professor Chris Maher – director of the University of Sydney Medical School Musculoskeletal Division and one of the world’s top back-pain specialists – agrees, saying there are numerous misconceptions about the causes and treatment of back pain.

‘We know that the worker with back pain, their employer and the clinician managing the worker’s back pain may misunderstand back pain, so we really need to think about educational programs targeting each of those groups,’ Professor Maher says.

The report also found that larger businesses were able to attract the best service. ‘Small-business owners are often small customers for the insurers and may therefore be less likely to be assigned the more experienced case managers to work on their claims,’ Nicholas explains.

Professor Maher says one of the most important things that employers/managers can do to help workers with back pain is to become educated about the condition.

‘Our understanding of how to best manage back pain has changed in the last decade. For example, surgery really has a quite limited role for workers with back pain,’ he says. ‘Doctors are also now more cautious with opioid medicines because if they are not used carefully they can cause harm.’

Prevention & cure

While there is often no obvious cause for a person’s back pain, Professor Maher says there are some simple steps that could be taken to prevent it: ‘Avoiding smoking, having a healthy diet and a healthy amount of alcohol, undertaking physical activity, and using your back sensibly.’

And while prevention is all very well, once the back pain is there it needs to be dealt with. ‘There are several steps people can take to help themselves get better,’ Professor Maher says.

‘The contemporary approach is don’t go to bed. Rather, try to stay physically active – you don’t need an X-ray and you should try to remain at work.’

Phyllis Stylianou