Tips to reducing MSK issues for Line Managers

staff wellbeing - tips for line managers

November 2, 2023

You probably know it yourself, you feel under the weather – bit of a sore throat, a cold, recent covid! Or you are feeling the internal pressure valve rising – pressures at work, pressures at home, balancing 5 plates at once and feeling restless and struggling to get a deep night’s sleep. What you perhaps weren’t expecting though was to start feeling low back pain or neck pain!! Now you have to add that into the mix of things to deal with as well! 

This is often the case in certain musculoskeletal (MSK) pain presentations. Certainly in cases that haven’t started as the result of an injury/ physical trauma. As a physiotherapist, I often spend time with my patients explaining pain felt to be like a bucket with drips of water coming in from different directions – injury and trauma is a gush of water in a bucket and increased volume of load and activity in a short space of time is an increasing flow in BUT posture, poor sleep, stress/ anxiety and depression also add water to the bucket at variable rates too. Eventually there is a good chance the water will start to overflow – Pain starts – the bucket represents our nervous system. 

As a line manager, there are ways you may be able to monitor and improve staff wellbeing, spot early signs and signpost people in the right direction to stem the flow of water and offer ‘a tap’, an outlet to reduce the risk of it overflowing. 

From a physical perspective, one of the most powerful ways of doing this is by managing load volumes. Each of us has a threshold of load that we can tolerate be it in a powerful lift of an extreme weight or the repetition of moving a light weight consistently. This is decided by genetics, our repetition of activities through childhood and a very gradual increase of a load over a long period of time. Our bodies adapt and strengthen, if given time to adjust, to manage load up to a predetermined absolute threshold. 

As a line manager, if you see that a member of staff suddenly starts a new role that requires force and speed more than they have been accustomed to then the risk of injury in those first 2-4 weeks is higher as their body has not had time to adjust to the new loads. If someone is kept on the same role working near their capacity and the line speed then increases, then the threshold is surpassed and ‘the water pouring in the bucket starts to overflow’. Even if they are at work just under their capacity and seem to be physically coping – a flow of water in from a stressful situation at work or at home, a light illness, a period of poor sleep or a subtle change in their health – medical/ hormonal/ mild progression of arthritis for example – is enough to create the overflow and pain starts.

As such, it is important to try and leave each individual with a little room at the top of their bucket – ‘The Buffer Zone’! (you’ll be sick of these bucket analogies by the end!) Getting feedback from the staff regarding their current physical and mental wellbeing periodically may highlight if someone is getting near tipping point. Referring someone on early for talking therapy through Occupational health or through their benefit scheme will help. Spotting early signs of discomfort and rotating their work activities/ reducing their physical loads and forces and/ or referring them for physiotherapy via Occupational Health early may prevent the water flowing over and provide an outlet. 

Rotation of physical tasks, as long as it is not onto significantly more strenuous load/ force driven activities than their usual task, will likely help reduce the risk of muscles and tendons or other anatomy riding close to its threshold and thus leave a little more room at the top of their bucket in the Buffer Zone to adapt to changes. It also may provide a different environment, different people to talk too, a feeling that someone is looking out for them and thus reduces the steady flow of water falling in from non-physical stressors. 

Now, I understand that if overall pace of activity is dictated by a required level of products per hour, then options to lower an individual’s pace of activities is difficult to control. However, with this in mind, recognise that as this pace increases then both physical load per hour and physical AND mental stress and challenge per hour increases. In this situation, it is all down to who has the most space left at the top of their bucket as to who lasts the longest. But as you will already know, any level of athlete will eventually burn out if this level of output continues. If we look at sports teams performing at their maximum level of ability and capacity, then some of those will need substitution either due to injury or the coaching and medical team spotting and preventing risk of injury. If we had surplus staff standing in the side-lines waiting to give others a rest at the right time then people will manage to work optimally for a longer given time. In reality, without substitutions, it will come down to well-timed rotation of tasks and enough options of tasks to make sure people with different levels of skills and physical and mental thresholds can manage to continue be productive or alternatively will simply need ‘time-out’.

A short period of reduced load activities may allow an individual to release a small flow of water from their bucket and certainly prevent a cascade of overflow when working for prolonged periods at capacity. HOWEVER, on the flip side, a prolonged period of inactivity or significantly reduced load breeds deconditioning and thus limits that person’s ability to manage higher demands.  

When a member of staff returns from a long period of absence or even after an extended (non-exercise based) holiday/ break their integral tissue will have deconditioned. To counterbalance this, a gradual return in either hours and/or choice of tasks from lighter/ slower/ less repetitive tasks should be encouraged and be slowly increased potentially over a 4-6 week period to give some time to slowly build both physical and mental resilience to the tougher tasks again. No different to an athlete, team performer returning to their sport after injury playing the last 20 minutes of a match or after their summer break coming back to pre-season training. 

There is a plethora of research evidence stating that an employee who feels valued and is well supported both physically and mentally in a work environment with good communication and rapport with colleagues will be more productive than one that isn’t. As a line manager, it’s important that staff wellbeing is always in your mind and it is equally important that you have the same positive environment too. If you know your limitations physically and mentally and work within your individual thresholds and seek support for yourself if you spot any early signs, then you will be able to better support the many of staff members under your wing.

A summary of ideas raised above include: 

  • Keep on eye on individuals current physical and mental wellbeing through one-to-one conversation or use an online template that staff check in on periodically to help spot changes in physical, mental or sleeping pattern etc?  
  • Signpost early to available mental health and physical health support. 
  • Provide enough different options of tasks to be able to rotate people to prevent gradual overload both physically and mentally. Especially important if rate of work increases with end of line output increase demands. 
  • Support graduated return to tasks after prolonged periods of absence. 
  • Look after yourself too! If your bucket is near capacity, you will be tight on breathing space and struggle to offer support to others too. 

You can find more information on the importance of staff wellbeing plus a video and extra resources on our wellbeing and health promotion services page.

No matter whether your condition was caused by a sport, work accident or otherwise, we welcome the chance to serve you.

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