Whatever happened to bad backs? Or slipped discs? Did they go out of fashion? Or did ibuprofen get stronger? Maybe evolution sped up and I wasn’t on the list. Who knows.
Anyway, recent years have seen the discourse around workplace health shift in focus away from what was traditionally one of the main reasons for employee absence and poor productivity to other areas. Musculoskeletal complaints, once top of the pops when it came to talking about employee absence and productivity, are now a bit, well, so-last-year.
The problem, though, is that in reality they still remain a major issue for employers, for individuals themselves – and something that the health insurance and protection industry is still getting to grips with.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are simply not getting as much airtime as they used to. Of course “mental health” is an equally important topic in terms of employee health, absence, productivity and wellbeing.
But mental health seems to be the only show in town at the moment and it doesn’t quite make sense.
There was a phrase – “biospsychosocial” – that used to do the rounds a few years back. It might sound like something cooked up by Hollywood eccentrics like Gwyneth Paltrow but it was – and still is – a pretty sound theory.
In short (and apologies for my unwieldy brevity to Professor Sir Mansel Aylward, who led much of the thinking around this), ailments like “bad backs” and “mental ill health” can aggravate one another. That leads, in some cases, to prolonged absence from work.
In other words, saying “I’ve got a mental health problem” or “I’ve got a bad back” can very often be conflated. That’s a fact that hasn’t changed, in spite of the former capturing today’s headlines at the expense of the latter.
At the sharp end, somewhere in a forgotten town in the North of England that Ms Paltrow might be unaware of, a twinge in the back combined with a miserable and precarious job, a nasty boss and twenty years left to go until a paltry and potentially non-existent retirement (if you’re lucky), is still a very real, very perfect storm for many.
But as “mental health” becomes the dominant, de rigeur ailment of choice when it comes to dealing with employee health, absence and productivity, there are individuals being left behind and employers – and UK plc – are missing out.
Yes, it’s great that more people are talking about mental health. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of dialogue around other issues that continue to affect health and the workplace in a very real way.
It’s not just bad backs – MSDs – that have been cast aside because they’re not fashionable enough to warrant the same amount of attention as the celebrity-endorsed mental health bandwagon (good work though it may do).
Other physically disabled individuals have also been overlooked in recent years as the cash-rich, right-on mental health lobby has virtue-signalled its way to market dominance.
That, some might argue, may be a good sign. After all, surely if we are not hearing about the lack of disabled employees in the workplace, then the disability lobby and charities have done their job. Some might argue that it’s not an issue any more – it’s not and never should have been a big deal if someone’s in a wheelchair – and now is the time to turn our attention to mental health.
Except that non-mental health disability is, in fact, still a big deal.
Only half of Britain’s disabled population of working age is actually in work – and that’s obviously not good enough.
Yes, that wasted resource (also known as people) includes many individuals with mental health disabilities.
But according to Arthritis Research UK, a similar number (52.4%) of all working age (16-64 years) disabled people in the UK experience musculoskeletal conditions.
In fact, MSD is the most frequent health complaint raised by employees in the UK and across Europe and the most common cause of long-term disability.
That might be about to change though. Towards the end of last year, the Secretary of State for the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP), Amber Rudd, announced a £40m personalised support package for long-term unemployed disabled people.
It is hoped that as many as 10,000 individuals could benefit from that scheme which would see them work with a dedicated key worker in order to get and stay in employment.
There are some that will say that’s not enough, that it’s too late and that the problems with the implementation of Universal Credit mean that anything the DWP tries to do will end in chaos.
And no doubt, like many well-intentioned and potentially effective government strategies, it will be drowned out by the din of the cash-rich mental health lobby and lost under the current impasse around Brexit. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Of course, mental health is important – and it might even now be cool – but let’s not forget the 50% of physically disabled people that can work, want to work but, for whatever reason, aren’t working.
The health insurance and protection industry does great, often unsung, work keeping people with MSDs healthy and in employment; it should keep pushing ahead and not drop the ball or lose focus just because something else is more cool.
Bad backs might have gone out of fashion; but they – and other MSDs – still exist and trying to fix them might just be the coolest thing of all.