Employees are experiencing more pain than ever before, with nearly half of the workforce diagnosed with some form of chronic pain lasting more than three months, according to Dr. Ayla Azad, chief experience officer at the Canadian Chiropractic Association, during a session at Benefits Canada‘s 2022 Benefits & Pension Summit on June 1.

Citing several different surveys, she noted a third of all lost time at work is due to musculoskeletal issues and 85 per cent of workers will suffer back pain in their lifetime, while many employees feel the benefits coverage for dealing with this pain isn’t adequate. “According to the Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey, 31 per cent of employees did not give that coverage a passing grade. We know employees rely on [paramedical] benefits to access much needed care, especially when it comes to MSK conditions.”

Read: Sounding Board: Chiropractic care more vital than ever

Working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic has had multiple negative effects for employees, including working from home without a proper ergonomic workspace. Dr. Azad cited a recent survey by the Canadian Institute for Safety and Performance that found nearly 70 per cent of employees who work from home reported experiencing pain or discomfort at the end of their work day.

“Employers are facing a shadow pandemic of chronic illnesses and MSK conditions because of this shift towards hybrid and [remote work] policies. I always say this to my patients — motion is lotion, we need to get out of this rut and get moving again, it really is critical for our health.”

Mental health has a strong correlation to musculoskeletal conditions, noted Dr. Azad, as 61 per cent of those with mental-health conditions also experience chronic pain and 65 per cent of those with chronic pain also experience mental-health issues such as depression. “A sedentary lifestyle can increase the chance of being overweight, developing type 2 diabetes or heart disease and experiencing depression and anxiety.”

Read: Take a psychological perspective when helping employees manage chronic pain

Given these worrying trends, Azad proposed some solutions to help employers combat the rise in musculoskeletal conditions and possible lost work. The first is to focus on rehabilitation, including the risk of employees developing long-haul coronavirus. “The buzzword for 2022 is going to be recovery and you can’t have recovery without rehabilitation. Now is the right time to keep these paramedical benefits front and centre and encourage employees to utilize them as part of their recovery and rehabilitation journey.”

Another solution is to establish a workplace musculoskeletal strategy, she said. “Every workplace has its own unique factors which affect MSK conditions for its employees. We strongly encourage employers, [human resources] professionals and benefits advisors to start these conversations around implementing strategies to improve workplace MSK health. Having an MSK workplace strategy can mitigate absence of disability costs and greatly improve the health well-being and productivity of employees.”

To have a successful musculoskeletal workplace strategy, Dr. Azad suggested creating an education and engagement plan, having clear leadership support and ensuring everyone understands the importance of investing in adequate coverage for paramedical services and musculoskeletal health.

Read: A look at how chiropractors can be workplace wellness partners

She also encouraged employers to make sure the coverage is adequate, evidence-based and patient-centred. “Low benefit maximums can be a barrier to recovery and discourage proactive treatment. Employees may feel the need to avoid early treatment, fearing they won’t have coverage when they need it most.”

According to Dr. Azad, chiropractic care is an essential paramedical benefit that can have a major impact in any workplace, with benefits including lowering short- and long-term disability risks, supporting mental health, lowering treatment costs and increasing patient satisfaction.

Read more coverage from the 2022 Benefits & Pension Summit.