Back to Work after a Back Injury

Computer worker diagram shows desk height, hip and knee angles and more.
Desk height should be level with your comfortable elbows. Andy Zito/Illustration Works/Getty Images

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?

I'll answer your questions with 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.

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 (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. 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, the employer needs cover the cost of getting your work done while you are incapacitated.

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 would cost your employer between $33,528 and $70,408 (approximately), just for that one incident.

 Your employer would have to make more than $1M in sales to make up for it.

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, had very similar results.

WIFM - 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:

Participatory or not, workplace interventions have their place in a company. Another study from the Netherlands in 2007, which involved 200 workers, found that those who experienced an intervention to address their back pain took about 25 fewer days of sick leave than those who did not.

Other studies have identified factors that increase pain or re-injury on the job after sick leave. A 2005 survey of almost 1,300 employees in Belgium found that tasks that intensified physical demands on the body increased the risk for short term (less than one month) sick leave due to low back pain. That same study found that severe pain, pain that radiates pain down an arm or leg (sciatica), and fear of doing assigned work tasks increased the long-term sick leave (which is leave that lasts longer than one month).


Driessen, M., et. al. The effectiveness of participatory ergonomics to prevent low-back and neck pain--results of a cluster randomized controlled trial. Scand J Work Environ Health. Sept. 2011 Accessed: March 2016.

Gheldof EL, Vinck J, Vlaeyen JW, Hidding A, Crombez G.The differential role of pain, work characteristics and pain-related fear in explaining back pain and sick leave in occupational settings. Pain. 2005 Jan;113(1-2):71-81.

Maurice T Driessen, et. al. Stay@Work: Participatory Ergonomics to prevent low back and neck pain among workers: design of a randomised controlled trial to evaluate the (cost-)effectiveness. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2008; 9: 145.

United States Department of Labor. Estimated Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses and Estimated Impact on a Company's Profitability Worksheet. Accessed: March 2016