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Will standing instead of sitting at desks reduce stress and absenteeism?

Q: Our company is going to move us away from sitting at desks more toward a standing station. This is supposed to help us reduce our work stress and hopefully reduce absenteeism due to back problems. Do other companies have as much problem with lost productivity due to back disability as we do?

A: There's no doubt that lost productivity due to back pain is a major problem in the work force. This has been reported in most developed countries around the world. And with fewer younger adults entering certain areas of industry, the drain on productivity is likely to increase.

Many studies have been done reporting on the cost of missed work (absenteeism), sick leave, inactivity (reduced productivity), and worker's compensation. A recent study from Australia also evaluated the cost (in dollars) of retirement among workers between the ages of 45 and 64 (Baby Boomers). Each worker reported leaving work permanently due to spinal disorders such as disc herniation, scoliosis, mechanical low back or neck pain, and spinal deformities.

The personal cost of lost wages as well as the burden on the government in the form of lost taxes and welfare or unemployment benefits was in the billions. The loss of workers was also reflected in the increased costs associated with government support payments to retirees.

There is a great deal of focus now on what can be done about this problem. Prevention of back problems is the first. Getting injured workers or workers with painful spinal disorders back to work rather than into retirement or on permanent disability is also an important goal.

Moving desk workers away from sitting all day has started to become a popular approach. Research has also shown that exercise is an effective way to prevent (or if necessary: to manage) spinal disorders. In fact, when comparing different forms of exercise (stretching, calisthenics, aerobics, coordination, strength training, relaxation) people generally improve across the board. There are fewer episodes of back pain, less absenteeism at work, and greater productivity.

A more specific approach may be needed for those workers who continue to experience a decreased ability to carry out daily activities due to back pain from spinal disorders. Rather than a global exercise approach, Physical Therapy to address individual problems may be helpful.

And when conservative (nonoperative) care fails to get the worker back into the labor force, surgery has been shown to benefit many people. Even with the added costs of these treatment measures, they are more cost-effective than not getting anyone back on the job.

Any plan that includes company investment in preventive health measures is money well-spent. Spending money to prevent chronic spine problems that would otherwise force early retirement of workers still capable of staying in the labor force will ultimately pay off. Maintaining the health of the work force and prevention of spinal disorders is important now and into the future.

Reference: Deborah J. Schofield, PhD, et al. The Personal and National Costs of Early Retirement Because of Spinal Disorders: Impacts on Income, Taxes, and Government Support Payments. In The Spine Journal. December 2012. Vol. 12. No. 12. Pp. 1111-1118.