Musculoskeletal issues have a far-reaching impact on the mental, physical and emotional wellness of benefits plan members and their families — however, they also come at a cost to plan sponsors.

According to Sun Life Assurance. Co.’s 2020 disability claims, 20 per cent were related to musculoskeletal health conditions and 30 per cent of these affected the back. The good news is that many of these issues are preventable and plan sponsors can build a prevention strategy that can increase productivity, lower absence rates and support those on leave with a safe and sustainable return to work.

“Given employees spend a significant portion of their waking hours at work, employers are in a unique position to educate employees and promote healthy lifestyle behaviour, both inside and outside of work,” said Andrea Minaker (pictured left), manager of client and partner engagement at Sun Life, during Benefits Canada‘s 2022 Chronic Disease at Work event in February.

Read: How will the coronavirus impact long-term disability claims?

Musculoskeletal health is very broad and includes anything related to the musculoskeletal system, including bones, ligaments and muscles. Back pain is the leading cause of musculoskeletal-related disability claims.

A musculoskeletal strategy can benefit plan sponsors through the cost savings of reduced short-term and long-term disability claims and improved productivity, due to reduced absenteeism and presenteeism caused by back pain, noted Minaker. However, a musculoskeletal strategy shouldn’t be siloed, she added — rather, it should be a part of broader health and wellness program and health and safety strategy.

Every workplace has unique factors that could aggravate plan members who already have chronic back pain, such as the industry and nature of the work. Furthermore, healthy plan members could end up with a back problem if they don’t do their jobs safely or don’t take care of their back when they’re not at work, said Sue Praught (pictured right), organizational health consultant for integrated health solutions at Sun Life, during the session.

Read: Remote working helping employees with chronic conditions miss less work: survey

She said a musculoskeletal strategy should focus on preventing injuries at work; support employees who are living with chronic back pain such as osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease or sciatica, so they can continue to work; and prevent healthy employees from developing back problems.

Best practices to building a workplace musculoskeletal health strategy starts with understanding the factors that influence musculoskeletal health and establishing a culture to support the strategy, said Praught, noting leadership endorsement and commitment are critical, in addition to establishing a musculoskeletal health committee with members from different departments and levels, so everyone’s needs are well represented.

Data analysis can help identify the program focus and establish a baseline for future benchmarking, she said. Potential data sources include analysis of occupational injury data, short- and long-term disability data and casual incidental absences, if they’re tracked. Preparation should also include an assessment of factors in or outside the workplace that can lead to or aggravate back problems.

Read: Next steps for data analytics in disability and benefits plans

Praught recommended that plan sponsors examine their health benefits utilization, such as claims for paramedical practitioners that usually treat back issues, such as physiotherapists, chiropractors, and massage therapists. She also suggested they try to correlate utilization with disability data.

It’s also important to look at subjective information, she said, noting no one understands the jobs better than the employees doing them. She suggested sending a brief survey out to employees to ask them how they’d make their job safer or easier.

Once an organization understands the biggest opportunities, it can establish priorities and set objectives, which may include changing policies and processes or implementing programs or initiatives. “The actual actions at this stage are going to be unique to your own organization and your identified objectives,” said Minaker. “Arguably, one of the most important steps is to evaluate your progress.”

This step is critical to determining whether the strategy has been effective at achieving goals and will guide changes and the evolution of the strategy over time, she said. “Your prevention strategy is never finished.”

Read more coverage of the 2022 Chronic Disease at Work conference.