Europe's workers face a debilitating obstacle to a productive work life in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP) is estimated to affect 100 million people in Europe, with MSDs affecting more than 40 million workers in the EU and accounting for about half of all work-related disorders. This represents an estimated cost to society of two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Indeed, the European commission estimates that MSDs account for 49.9 per cent of all absences from work lasting three days or longer and for 60 per cent of permanent work incapacity.
If we look at the situation in Germany, for example, MSDs, including back pain and arthritis, cost the German economy billions of euros, with one estimate suggesting around €26.6bn, making MSDs one of the most costly disease categories. The costs included in the estimate are for the prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and care of the diseases only. In other words, they don't even take into account indirect costs such as work absence and lost productivity, so in fact, the true cost of MSDs to Germany is likely much higher even than this estimate suggests.
"The European commission estimates that MSDs account for 49.9 per cent of all absences from work lasting three days or longer and for 60 per cent of permanent work incapacity"
What can be done in the face of such staggering economic and social costs? Fit for Work, a multi-stakeholder coalition working toward a better alignment between the work and health agendas in the EU strongly recommends 'early intervention' to curb the negative impact of MSDs on the health of individuals and on workplace productivity.
While 'early intervention' clinics have been implemented in various contexts throughout Europe to great effect, we at the Acura rheumatology centre in Rhineland-Palatinate are particularly excited about our pilot project which focuses on the employer's awareness of the role they can – the role they must – play in the prevention and early treatment of MSDs. In partnership with Fit for Work, we are working with the chemical industry employers' association of Rhineland-Palatinate, which includes 170 small, medium and large companies. The goal of this programme is to promote prevention of MSDs through employer and employee education, screening days, workshops and prevention strategies and recommendations customised both for the individual employee and for each company. The demand from employers to implement the programme in their companies is growing. In fact, we plan to professionalise this project in the near future in light of the high demand from companies wanting a targeted approach to preventing MSDs in the workplace.
We have been successful in our campaign to win the support and participation of employers in the fight against MSDs, but there remains much to be done. "Retaining skilled workers must be a policy and research priority – with an ageing workforce, it is likely that the incidence and effects of MSDs will intensify and worsen rather than improve in the medium- to long-term," says professor Ingemar F. Petersson of Lund university, Sweden, a member of the EULAR scientific committee representing its standing committee for epidemiology and health services research.
If Germany's workforce – and indeed, Europe's – is to be productive and competitive in the global economy, stakeholders, from healthcare professionals and employers to policymakers and governmental agencies, must act in a cohesive way, and we must act now. Europe's workforce depends on it, and it depends on being fit for work.