Chronic pain is the most common reason people of working age drop out of the workforce—with back problems and arthritis alone accounting for 40% of forced retirements—while 90% of people with severe or very severe pain report some interference with work.
Chronic pain is responsible for an estimated 9.9 million absent days from work each year, which costs the economy $1.4 billion per annum, while the total cost of lost productivity is estimated at $11 billion per annum.
Most new recipients of the Disability Support Pension have musculoskeletal disorders, while people with chronic pain forced onto the pension have an average drop in income of 75-80%. About 50% of people out of the workforce due to back problems are living in poverty.
In some cases people with chronic pain might be able to work under modified conditions—such as shorter shifts or more rest periods or regular stretch breaks—but they are involuntarily excluded from the labour market. For many, finding an understanding employer willing to accommodate their needs is impossible and they become “workless”. The longer a person is off work, the less likely they are to ever gain employment.
The children of unemployed parents are more likely to be out of work themselves when they reach adulthood and they are more likely to experience psychological distress, have chronic illnesses and lower levels of wellbeing.
Workplaces have a role to play in breaking this cycle of worklessness, and would benefit from applying the protocol used in a study known as the Work Injury Screening and Early Intervention (WISE) study.
The WISE study demonstrated improved patient outcomes and delivered average cost savings of 22%—almost halving the number of days off work.
The protocol involves the screening of injured workers to identify those having a high risk of having a long-term disability and providing early intervention through tailored psychological help.
Happy Body At Work: Eight-week evidence-based program for sedentary workplaces to improve four key lifestyle habits—sitting, moving, stress and sleep—to create behavioural change and help prevent painful conditions
WISE study: Screening and early intervention program for injured workers