WE often hear about the skilled labour shortage in Australia, particularly here in Western Australia and I wonder if this problem could be partially alleviated by workers taking fewer sickies due to back pain.
I am an orthopaedic surgeon and rheumatologist and I’ve been conducting internationally collaborative research into this topic because pain in the back is such a huge problem in the workforce.
The back is the most common site of pain for people of working age, from young to middle-aged adults and anybody who has experienced severe problems in this area knows how debilitating this pain can be, making every day activities a struggle.
The interesting thing is that my research has shown that people who presented to their GP with a new episode of serious back pain, were more likely to get back to their jobs fairly quickly if they felt they had an element of control over their work conditions.
For instance, patients need to feel in control of their work hours to some extent and how they spend their breaks during the day, if feasible, otherwise they’re at risk of long work absences up to six months and that doesn’t help them, the economy or our health system.
We need to encourage our GPs to follow up with patients at risk of long work absences six weeks after their first appointment.
Then, if the patient is still on sick leave, on a regular basis after that to ensure people at risk are properly monitored and interventions are being put in place as early as possible.
The patients should also speak with their supervisor about their work conditions.
The risk of prolonged leave could be averted in the long term by measures such as greater empowerment within a job, including more decision-making by the worker.
Markus Melloh is an Associate Professor at the WA Institute for Medical Research