Back to Work After a Back Injury

If you are going back to work after taking sick leave for a neck or back injury, you may be apprehensive about returning. Will you reinjure your back? Will your boss and/or co-workers understand your need to take it easy? Can you still keep up with your assigned duties, and if not, is your job in jeopardy?

To answer these questions, here's a question: Are you fortunate enough to have good communication with your employer?

If so, you may be in a position to make suggestions about things the company might do to help you get up to speed again. Even if you don’t enjoy that kind of relationship, some of the research (evidence) based facts below may help you better understand your condition in the context of your work place.

Computer worker diagram shows desk height, hip and knee angles and more.
Andy Zito / Illustration Works / Getty Images

Occupational Injury ROI

Many employees have a “head down” approach to dealing with back pain on the job. In other words, they don’t say anything to their boss about their pain or condition, fearing the worst, i.e., termination may result.

But it is in your employer’s best interest to address musculoskeletal disorders that occur or are worsened in the work place. This is because any time you injure yourself on the job, it costs them money.

A 2017 systematic review published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation reports that the US spends more than $50 billion per year when employees are delayed from returning to work after an injury. The UK spends $11 billion (in USD) while the Netherlands, not quite $5 billion in U.S. dollars. The review authors report also that low back pain causes more disability than any other health condition.

Participatory Ergonomics

Especially if you work in a large company, you may, upon getting back to your job, wonder if anyone even knows, or cares, about your back problem. A new strategy for fitting the job to the returning worker is gaining steam in occupational health and human resources circles.

It's called participatory ergonomics.

Participatory ergonomics programs are interventions in which many “stakeholders” are involved. Stakeholders are people on and off your work site who play a role in your on-the-job well-being. This would certainly include you, and may also include your immediate boss, the human resources manager for your company, the health and safety manager for your company, an outside consultant, and/or others.

Participatory ergonomics consists of measures to assess and modify your job to help you manage performing it with reduced or fully relieved pain.

A 2010 study from the Netherlands found that employees and bosses alike had a positive experience with participatory ergonomics. Another 2010 study from the Netherlands, involving approximately 3,000 workers, found that participatory ergonomics programs were helpful when the employee was rehabilitating low back pain, but not when dealing with neck pain. Participatory ergonomics was neither helpful nor harmful for preventing either type of pain.

A similar study, published in a 2011 issue of the Scandinavian of Journal Work and Environmental Health, reported similar results.

What Will a Work Place Intervention Do for You?

A workplace intervention may offer you, the employee, one or more of the following fixes or adjustments:

  • Job modification, including job sharing or task rotation
  • Ergonomic chair and training on how to use it
  • Reconfiguration of your desk, computer, and/or chair to position your work optimally for you
  • Stretch or exercise classes
  • Biomechanics training

Participatory or not, workplace interventions likely have their place in companies.

What If Your Employer Won't Budge?

If your employer is resistant to accommodating your requests for workstation modification, keep in mind that not only might they have to pay for some or all of your treatment, but when you take sick leave or perform with diminished productivity, they're required to cover the cost of getting your work done while you are incapacitated.

The costs can be calculated.

For example, let’s say your employer operates her business at a 3% profit margin. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), if an employee in your company is diagnosed with a muscle strain, it could cost your employer somewhere between $33,528 and $70,408 just for that one incident. Your employer would have to generate more than $1M in sales to make up for your injury.

Given this, you may be able to show your employer that fulfilling your request may be less expensive than another insurance claim, should your pain be made worse on the job.

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Article Sources
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  1. Steenstra I, et al. Systematic review of prognostic factors for return to work in workers with sub acute and chronic low back pain. J Occup Rehabil. 2017;27(3):369–381. doi:10.1007/s10926-016-9666-x

  2. Driessen MT, Proper KI, Anema JR, Bongers PM, van der Beek AJ. Process evaluation of a participatory ergonomics programme to prevent low back pain and neck pain among workersImplement Sci. 2010;5:65. Published 2010 Aug 24. doi:10.1186/1748-5908-5-65

  3. Driessen MT, Proper KI, Anema JR, Knol DL, Bongers PM, van der Beek AJ. Participatory ergonomics to reduce exposure to psychosocial and physical risk factors for low back pain and neck pain: results of a cluster randomised controlled trialOccup Environ Med. 2011;68(9):674-681.

  4. Driessen MT, Proper KI, Anema JR, Knol DL, Bongers PM, van der Beek AJ. The effectiveness of participatory ergonomics to prevent low-back and neck pain--results of a cluster randomized controlled trialScand J Work Environ Health. 2011;37(5):383-393. doi:10.5271/sjweh.3163

  5. United States Department of Labor. Estimated Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses and Estimated Impact on a Company's Profitability Worksheet.