How to tackle musculoskeletal disorders and stress in the manufacturing business

Manufacturing is a world of precision and efficiency – where ensuring all the machinery within a company’s workshop or factory remains in good working order is the key to productivity and profitability.

Businesses focus heavily on the quality and condition of their equipment (and rightly so), with significant investment made into maintenance schemes to avoid costly downtime when a part breaks. But many employers are simply not doing the same for the people who operate the machinery – despite the fact this can be just as costly for the business.

Kevin Rogers, a former senior manager within the industry who now focuses on employee wellbeing as CEO of Health Cash Plan provider Paycare, says companies must invest in ‘maintenance’ of the individuals who run their factories, not just the machines…

“When I worked as an accountant within an automotive pressing company, I sat in my office and all day long I would hear the noise of multiple presses, the biggest of which was 100 tonnes. If I couldn’t hear that noise then I knew there was a big problem because, putting it simply, the noise meant we were making money.

“The presses operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and because they were so important, the company had invested in a preventative maintenance programme to minimise the chances of them suddenly grinding to a halt.

“And, we see this trend repeated across pretty much every other area of the business – the computers the HR department use are insured against loss or damage, the company cars driven by the management team are regularly serviced, even the photocopier is likely to have a maintenance programme in place to ensure it remains in good working order.

“But the irony is, the firm I worked for had absolutely no ‘maintenance’ programme in place to ensure its staff didn’t succumb to poor health, physically or mentally. Some may argue that you can replace a human more easily than a machine – but actually if that person is on long-term sick leave, or at work but not working at their best due to a health and wellbeing issue, then they are ultimately costing you money. And even if they leave the company due to their health, you then have the time and financial outlay associated with hiring a new recruit.

“Surely it would be simpler to just look after your current staff, and make sure all of the experience and knowledge they have stays within the company?

“While it’s impossible to completely eradicate sick leave, there are many policies and programmes managers can introduce to try and minimise the risk of an employee becoming unwell. We know two of the biggest causes of absence are musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) and stress/mental health, and there are various insurance policies employers can put in place to tackle their effects.

“MSDs are a range of conditions affecting the muscles, bones and joints including carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. According to the Office for National Statistics, absence due to MSDs accounts for 18 per cent of the time taken off work in total.

“Even if the team member comes to work, in reality they’re potentially not well enough to be there – contributing to the huge rise in presenteeism reported to the CIPD, with 86 per cent of people saying they’d seen people working when they obviously weren’t well enough.

“Early diagnosis and treatment is key to minimising the effects of MSDs, so encouraging a workplace culture where people feel able to take time off for a doctor’s appointment, or feel comfortable enough to approach their manager if they’re starting to feel unwell, is absolutely key.

“Having an open-door policy where managers are available as often as possible for an informal chat can help foster an atmosphere where staff feel able to speak up if they are concerned about their health.

“Employees spend a large portion of their waking hours at work, so colleagues and bosses are well placed to notice if someone appears to be struggling. It’s not about bosses training to become physiotherapists or mental health experts, but about realising that the implications of such health issues will subsequently have a negative impact on their company’s efficiency and bottom-line.

“In the event of a diagnosis of MSD, staff should see their working routine and responsibilities tweaked to suit their needs as much as possible, whether it’s less heavy lifting or minimising the need for repetitive motions. They should also be encouraged to attend sessions with a physiotherapist, chiropractor or other health professional – and this is where having an employee wellbeing strategy in place can provide huge return on investment.

“Within the workplace, it’s also highly likely that some of the team will be struggling with a mental health issue – one in four people are now experiencing problems such as anxiety or depression. Again, encouraging staff to seek medical assistance and providing access to an employee assistance programme for confidential advice can help hugely.

“Despite many issues, such as suicide, disproportionately affecting more men than women — with men three times more likely to take their own lives and those in their late 40s particularly at risk (Samaritans) — they are less likely than women to engage with any healthcare support. Some of the reasons might be embarrassment, shame, or simply not being able to get an appointment at their physical GP surgery, and the use of online apps such as our Paycare GP 24/7 app absolutely helps ensure that people don’t put off seeing or speaking to someone.

“Of course, these health concerns affect women too but, in a male-dominated industry it’s absolutely critical that these issues are spoken about freely, confidentially, and most importantly, without judgement. As managers within the industry, it’s their duty of care to ensure that their team know exactly where they can go should they need support in a particular area of their lives, and GP apps are another route to ensure your staff receive quick, effective and qualified advice when it’s needed.

“Not only can they remove some of the barriers people face when seeking health advice, but an app can be used at any time of the day or night — even on a lunch break at work — so there’s really no excuse in making this cost-effective, but crucial, service available to your workforce as a way of protecting and maintaining their health.

“Other ideas which can, and have, worked for businesses include dedicated workshops on topics like financial worries or managing workplace stress, setting up a wellbeing focus group, offering more flexible ways of work, and clearly communicating and sharing reminders about what options are available to the team, so they know what support is in place and how they can use it.

“With an average of 4.1 sickness days per employee, the cost of absence soon adds up. But there are many options for employers looking to implement policies and practices which will benefit the company as a whole as well as the individuals within it. It really is a case of treating your staff like you would your machines, and putting a maintenance programme in place to minimise the risk of something going wrong.”

Kevin Rogers
Kevin Rogers is CEO of Health Cash Plan provider, Paycare, a not-for-profit Health Cash Plan provider that helps businesses recognise, reward and retain their employees, and provides preventative support covering their physical, mental and financial health and wellbeing needs.