Musculoskeletal (MSK) employee health

Strategies and solutions for better outcomes and reduced business impact

Published Date: Oct 30, 2023

Employee musculoskeletal (MSK) health is something you’ve undoubtedly worked to learn more about in recent years as the number of people in pain has skyrocketed right along with related costs.

Back strain, arthritis, and more than 150 other MSK diseases and conditions reduce people’s ability to function and participate both at work and in their private lives. These issues affect 1 in 2 adults in the United States and are responsible for about $560 billion to $635 billion in accrued treatment costs and lost wages.

The effects of MSK pain touch all corners of your organization, reducing productivity and hampering performance. Overall, poor employee MSK health can be a driving force in destabilizing not just employee wellness, but that of your business—regardless of your industry.

This article examines why promoting employee MSK health is vital for your business. We’ll explore the links between pain and well-being, assess the risks your organization faces by not prioritizing MSK health, and dive into actionable strategies you can implement to help your workforce prevent and manage pain.

MSK health and your employees

MSK health refers to the health of the muscles, bones, and joints. Disorders that stem from poor MSK health, such as arthritis, carpal tunnel, and sprains and strains, are pervasive and often caused by repetitive motion and overexertion that result in cumulative trauma. Musculoskeletal pain can even stem from too much time spent in a neutral position.

Workers' ordinary, daily tasks—which can involve poor posture, overexertion, exposure to vibrations, and other harmful factors—may put their MSK health at risk. Many musculoskeletal disorders develop over time, but the earliest warning signs include excessive fatigue or discomfort.

Major reasons why these acute problems develop into costly, long-term chronic pain include poor recognition of the problem and failure to either prevent it or treat it early.

How employees’ MSK health affects your business

MSK disorders can limit mobility and affect a worker’s ability to show up or perform their job to their highest ability.

Poor MSK health among your employees can lead to:

Absenteeism and lowered productivity

A 2023 review of studies found that pain is the leading condition associated with productivity loss, beating out cancer, chronic lung disease, and cardiometabolic disease. In a study of healthcare workers, MSK disorders were responsible for 27% of all workplace absences.

It’s estimated that absenteeism and presenteeism from chronic illnesses and pain lead to an average of $3,015 in lost productivity per employee, per year.

Poor mental health and well-being

You can’t fully address mental health without managing pain.

Because chronic pain and depression have similar pathways in the brain, increased pain leads to a heightened risk of depression. At the same time, depression or anxiety can amplify how the brain perceives pain. 

By the Numbers

- Of people who live with depression, 65% also have chronic pain.

- Of those with chronic pain, up to 50% will experience depression.

- 74% of people in pain believe their pain has a negative impact on their mental health.

Source: Hinge Health. People in Pain Survey, July 2022.

Worsening pain means a worsening mental state, affecting employees' ability to show up and perform. Depression alone interferes with a person's ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time.

Higher healthcare costs

MSK care remains one of the top three cost drivers for 76% of large employers, according to a Business Group on Health survey.

Disability claims and leave

According to the World Health Organization, MSK conditions are the leading contributors to disability and the need for rehabilitation worldwide.

Strategies for improving employees’ MSK health

As pain rates continue to rise, prioritizing a preventative and holistic approach to supporting MSK health of your employees is set to become a critical part of your overall approach to employee health.

Here are some strategies that can help you encourage better MSK health in your employees:

Evaluate and improve occupational health and safety measures

Occupational health and safety measures don’t just apply to factory floors and construction sites. Even office workers can be affected by their work environment. Are your workstations ergonomic? Do you provide assistive technology that can help workers do their jobs without excessive strain? Does your shift planning allow for breaks in repetitive-motion tasks?

Bring more awareness of MSK issues to your workforce

For example, post or otherwise share information on the early signs and complications of various MSK conditions. Hinge Health has a rich library of resources that can help, including articles on wrist tendonitis, hip arthritis, herniated discs, and more.

Promote a path to early intervention

Once they recognize there may be an issue, it’s important that employees get started managing it right away.

A study published in the journal Pain found that people with first-time MSK pain who received early active care through a digital MSK program had an eight times lower chance of developing chronic pain at 12 months compared to those who spent two to three weeks resting. 

Frequently communicate about offered health benefits that can help your team get the treatment they need early on.

Address barriers to care

Know, however, that having benefits doesn’t always equate to being able to use them. Some employees may not engage with in-person physical therapy, for example, due to issues such as out-of-pocket costs, limited appointment availability, and proximity to a provider.

Remote physical therapy programs can help address these obstacles and, in some cases, give employees access to a broader range of specialists who can help them manage their pain.

Studies show that remote physical therapy can help improve health outcomes in patients with musculoskeletal conditions by offering new avenues to educate patients and facilitate behavior change toward a healthy lifestyle. In many cases, patients can achieve the same or better outcomes without the limitations of traditional PT.

Support an overall healthy lifestyle

Employees with obesity, who drink or smoke, or who engage in limited physical activity are at increased risk of poor MSK health. Supporting healthy habits means supporting MSK health, too.

Consider things like providing on-site fitness classes, access to a nutritionist, smoking cessation counseling, and so on.

Make it a group thing

Start labor-intensive shifts with group stretching, make meeting breaks movement breaks, or incentivize employees with team exercise challenges. 

What’s the return on investing in employee MSK health?

Supporting good MSK health in your workforce can drive down absenteeism, boost productivity, slash medical claims, reduce drug costs, and more. Of course, the solutions you invest in are what drive actual ROI.

Studies on the impact of Hinge Health found that our program leads to an average of:

  • 2.4x ROI for payers

  • 39% reduction in surgery costs (Half of overall spending on MSK care is attributed to surgical and other invasive procedures, many of which aren’t necessary.)

  • $2,387 per-member, per-year MSK claims reduction

  • 68% reduction in pain per member

  • 58% decrease in depression and anxiety

  • 62% improvement in productivity

Learn how to dissect an ROI claim by downloading our free report, Musculoskeletal (MSK) care: A healthcare cost you can control.

Traditional MSK Care Is Falling Short

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