Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the invisible scourge of the workplace. By 2030, it is estimated that seven million working age people will have MSDs.

MSDs are diseases, injuries or pain in the body's bones, joints, or connective tissue such as ligaments. In 2013 30.6 million days were lost to MSDs, the greatest number of days lost to sickness absence for any health condition.

The term covers over 200 different conditions including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, fractures, and gout.

Karen Steadman, senior researcher at The Work Foundation and leader of its health and wellbeing at work programme, says: “People with MSDs suffer pain and functional impairment, and the conditions can fluctuate causing confusion and uncertainty for employees, colleagues and managers. One day a task may be easy, the next, impossible.”

MSDs are also linked to mental health problems, and many people experience both. Of those off work for a year with MSDs, around 30% will be receiving treatment for depression. Both MSDs and mental health problems are often invisible and workers may be reluctant to talk about them, for fear of not being believed.

Steadman says: “MSDs and mental health problems each affect one in six working age people so they can be considered normal within the workforce, and managers and employees  need to be aware of them.”

How can the incidence of MSDs be reduced?

A substantial percentage are attributed to work so employers can take action to prevent injuries caused by lifting, poor posture and repetitive actions. Steadman advises that employees should take up problems with line managers, and where possible engage with occupational health. Patients' groups, ACAS, HSE and trade unions can also give advice, and support for individuals is available through the recently-launched Fit For Work Service or the Access To Work scheme.

Early intervention can make a big difference. A programme in Madrid – soon to be piloted in Leeds – showed that intervening within five days of absence could reduce sick leave and lost production among those with MSDs by 40%, and halved job loss and permanent disability.

Steadman urges wider recognition of the problem. “MSDs and mental health, which often go together, must be made more visible and taken more seriously in the workplace. More investment in research and early intervention will cut costs for the NHS, the DWP and society as a whole.”