A man clutches his painful back

Work-related back pain: one size doesn’t fit all

A “blanket approach” to getting people with back problems and other musculoskeletal issues to return to work will be ineffective, according to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).

Responding to a pledge by Health Secretary Steve Barclay to provide support for people with back issues, IOSH said it is crucial that employers seek to provide rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes that can be tailored to individuals.

IOSH believes any government commitment to reform occupational health provision needs to be firmly aligned with a gradual shift from businesses to provide more supportive workplaces.

Head of Policy, Ruth Wilkinson said:

“It’s crucial that we do more to ensure people can return to work, stay in work and thrive at work. But a blanket approach to this, one which doesn’t take account of individual differences, will simply not work. Employers have a huge role to play in helping individuals with health conditions transition back into the workforce. We urge them to invest in prevention, occupational rehabilitation programmes and return-to-work policies and practices which can be tailored to the needs of individuals.”

Referring to the government’s Major Conditions Strategy, Barclay highlighted that more than one in five people who are economically inactive have a musculoskeletal condition. Among the initiatives highlighted in the strategy are exercise videos for people to follow at home and community hubs for people to attend classes and get treatment without seeing a GP.

IOSH says it’s crucial the government and businesses move forward in their efforts to get people back to work. It says that while plans such as the recently announced multi-billion pound proposal to tackle inactivity and boost economic growth are welcomed, such work needs to be “good work” – meaning it’s safe, healthy, sustainable and accommodates people’s needs – and should be implemented through improved access to flexible working, occupational health services and occupational safety and health advice.

Wilkinson added:

“This can have the twin effects of increasing inclusivity and diversity at work and helping ensure that those with health conditions and disabilities can fulfil their potential. The positive perceptions about work this can lead to have been linked with higher workforce productivity, business performance and customer and worker loyalty.”

The HSE says employers must protect workers from the risks of developing back pain caused by work. There are things that both they and their workers can do to manage back pain in the workplace.

Protect workers
Employers must:

  • Avoid work activities that can cause back pain, where reasonably practicable.
  • Where the activity can't be avoided, assess it to see what can be done to reduce the risk of back pain.
  • Apply the control measures identified and monitor and review them to make sure they are working.
  • Consult workers and, if they have health and safety concerns, do something about them.

Causes of back pain at work
Some work tasks can cause back pain or make existing pain worse:

  • Lifting heavy or bulky loads.
  • Carrying loads awkwardly, possibly one-handed.
  • Pushing, pulling or dragging heavy loads.
  • Manual handling in awkward places, such as during delivery work.
  • Repetitive tasks, such as packing products.
  • Bending, crouching or stooping.
  • Stretching, twisting and reaching.
  • Being in one position for a long time.
  • Working beyond your capability or when physically overtired.
  • Working with display screen equipment (with poor posture).
  • Driving long distances or over rough ground, especially if the seat is not, or cannot be, properly adjusted or operating heavy equipment (for example excavators).

A major reason for developing back pain is having had a previous episode, particularly if it was recent. How the work is organised (for example, high workloads, tight deadlines, lack of control of the work and working methods) can also have an impact.

Manage the risk of back pain
Reduce the risk of back pain in your workplace by:

  • Identifying what activities can cause back pain and decide whether they can be avoided or changed.
  • Asking workers for input – they have first-hand knowledge of the work and can suggest changes.
  • Thinking about how to make jobs physically easier, for example, by moving loads on wheels.
  • Making sure controls, for example lifting aids, are available, used and maintained.
  • Looking for signs of back pain among workers, such as a reluctance to do a particular task, which may suggest controls are not working.
  • Encouraging workers to report problems early so they get the right help.


IOSH Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing, brought to you by International Workplace, is designed to provide managers with the tools and techniques to improve health and wellbeing in their organisation.

The course covers:

  • Ergonomics, demographics and types of working.
  • Giving employees the knowledge and skills to identify wellbeing issues, and to act on them.
  • Work-related health issues – such as how to deal with employees living with cancer, long-term diseases, mobility issues and poor mental health.
  • Understanding that an employer’s duty of care extends beyond health and safety, to employee wellbeing.


Find out more here.