Musculoskeletal conditions and work – part 1

October 22, 2020 by Lisa Bywaters0

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And things you can do to manage

Finding and keeping a job when you have a musculoskeletal condition can be difficult. Pain, fatigue, medication side effects and the unpredictability of your condition can all affect your ability to work.

The extent to which this happens will depend on many things such as the condition you have, e.g. back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout, how severe it is, how well it’s being managed and the type of work you do. Physically demanding work, such as building, nursing and farming, will be impacted by painful joints or restricted movements. And any work that requires you to focus and concentrate, especially for extended periods of time, will be affected by brain fog, pain and lack of sleep.

The good news is there are things you can do to help manage these issues. We’ve listed a bunch of strategies here. This is part 1 of our 2 part blog.

Note: we understand that some of these strategies may not be possible for all workplaces or conditions. However the majority of them can be adapted in some way to suit your needs.

Work with your healthcare team to ensure your condition is under control and well managed. This may involve your GP, rheumatologist, physiotherapist, podiatrist and/or occupational therapist. They’ll also help you develop a plan to manage at work when your condition flares.

Evaluate your workspace. Whatever your setting – office, retail, manufacturing, hospitality, transport – there are options for making it more supportive for you. The first step is to talk with an occupational therapist about the issues you’re facing and developing some strategies to help you manage them. They may include simple things such as being aware of your posture throughout the day and changing position regularly to reduce pain, strain and fatigue. They may also include changing your workspace to make it work for you.

For example:

  • using a standing/sitting desk
  • rearranging the setup so that items you use most often are close by
  • sitting on a chair or perch instead of standing for long periods
  • using a headset on your phone
  • getting lumbar supports for your chair or car seat
  • using a trolley to help you move heavy items.

Some of these options may be easy to do without going through your employer, but some changes may need their involvement. If your employer knows about your condition, then you can discuss these changes together. However if you’ve chosen not to disclose your condition, your employer is still obliged to make reasonable adjustments to your workstation or environment to ensure your comfort and safety. Things such as stand up desks, foot rests, wrist rests, height adjustable chair, ergonomic chair are all considered reasonable. For more information read our information on Employment FAQs and visit Safe Work Australia.

Take control of your pain. Chronic pain can affect your ability to do the things you want and need to do, your quality of sleep, your concentration and mood. Basically it sucks 😣. That’s why you need a toolbox of strategies for managing your pain. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to pain management. So having several strategies you know work for you, is essential. They may include gentle exercise, medications, heat and cold, stretches, massage, splints, braces and aids and equipment. It’ll take some trial and error, but it’s well worth the effort to find what works best for you. You can then pull them out of your toolbox when needed, giving you more control over your pain. Your doctor and physiotherapist can also give you tips for managing your pain while at work. For more information and practical tips for dealing with pain, read Managing your pain: An A-Z guide.

Along with pain, fatigue is a massive issue for people with musculoskeletal conditions. Fatigue is very different from just being a little tired. It’s overwhelming physical and mental tiredness that makes every activity a struggle. But there are things you can do to manage so that it has less impact on your life and your work. Find out how.

Acknowledge the unpredictability of your condition. It’s a fact that musculoskeletal conditions are unpredictable. You often won’t know you’re about to have a flare until one happens. Apart from increased pain, stiffness and fatigue, having a flare can be really stressful as you worry about getting things done – at work and at home. So having a plan in place for managing – before a flare occurs – means you can be proactive. This may involve developing a plan with your healthcare team that will help you cope at work, prioritising and pacing your activities so that you get any important, time dependent tasks done when you’re feeling your best, discussing flexible work arrangements (like working from home) with your employer, or taking time off work or reducing your hours until you can get the flare under control. The important thing is that you’re prepared, with a plan of attack in place, ready to go when needed.

Use your scheduled breaks. It’s easy when you’re feeling under pressure – whether it’s from your employer or pressure you’ve put on yourself – to ignore your lunch or tea breaks and just keep working. But this will only add to your stress, pain and fatigue. You need to take some downtime during your day to eat, drink and give your mind and body a break. If you can, get outdoors and breathe in some fresh air. When you return from your break you’ll feel better, have a clearer head, and be more productive.

For more info and tips check out part 2 of this blog.

Call our Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, COVID-19, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to Explore

JobsAccess
Australian Government
JobAccess is the national hub for workplace and employment information for people with disability, employers and service providers. It provides:

  • a wide range of info and services to help people with disability find and keep jobs, get promoted to better jobs, upgrade or expand their workplace skills
  • advice on modifying your work area, talking about your disability, training for your co-workers, negotiating flexible work arrangements and returning to work
  • the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) which gives financial help to eligible people with disability and mental health conditions and employers to buy work related modifications, equipment, Auslan services and workplace assistance and support services.
  • and much more.

Work Assist
Australian Government
Work Assist can help you stay in work if you risk losing your job through illness, injury or disability.

I have a job and arthritis: Now what?
Arthritis Society Canada

Fatigue: Beyond tiredness
National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (UK)

Sleep and pain
painHEALTH 

Managing flares
National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (UK) 



Musculoskeletal Australia (or MSK) is the consumer organisation working with, and advocating on behalf of, people with arthritis, osteoporosis, back pain, gout and over 150 other musculoskeletal conditions.

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