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New national research centre to tackle musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace

Published: 
24 November 2014

A major new research centre to tackle the impact of musculoskeletal disorders on people's ability to work has been announced by two leading medical research bodies.

Researchers at the £1.4m Arthritis Research UK/MRC Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work, led by the University of Southampton, aim to find cost-effective ways of reducing the impact of conditions that affect the muscles, joints and bones on people’s employment and productivity, with benefits for patients, employers and society as a whole.

Director of the new centre, Professor David Coggon, said: “Musculoskeletal conditions are a major cause of sickness absence and job loss. We’re enormously excited about our new centre which we hope will lead to new ways of preventing their occurrence, and helping employees who are affected to stay in productive work.”

The centre will focus its research on the three main musculoskeletal causes of work disability – back, neck and arm pain, osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis. A special theme will be the impact of these conditions on older people who are approaching normal retirement age.

Dr Karen Walker-Bone, centre deputy director, added: “We’re planning a number of specific research projects that could have important impacts on policy and on the management of musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace.”

These include:

  • Investigating whether a social media and internet campaign to spread positive messages about how best to manage back pain, can improve outcomes for patients.
  • Working with GPs and employers to improve the effectiveness of the new GP ‘fit note’ which has replaced the sick note.
  • Developing guidelines for patients undergoing surgery for conditions such as knee osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome on when they should return to work, and what their subsequent levels of activity in the workplace should be.
  • Finding out whether working to an older age is good or bad for health, and in what circumstances.


According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) almost 31 million days of work were lost last year due to back, neck and muscle problems, and they accounted for more prolonged absences than any other ailment. Musculoskeletal disorders have been the primary cause of absenteeism for the past five years, with the UK having one of the highest rates in Europe.

However, more scientific evidence is needed on the best approaches to their management, and the interventions that could most effectively reduce their impact in the workplace. The new centre aims to fill that gap.

The research team already has an established research track record on the relationship between health and work, and now aims to place a greater emphasis on development of practical interventions – organisational, behavioural and physical ¬– to reduce the impact of musculoskeletal conditions, whether or not they are caused by work.

They will work closely with clinicians, employers, employees and patients to emphasise the importance of people with musculoskeletal conditions remaining at work where possible. For this to happen, employers need to be flexible in enabling their staff to change or modify their patterns of work without compromising the overall productivity of their business.

The centre will be co-located with the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, with collaborating ‘spokes’ at the Universities of Aberdeen, Oxford, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Salford, Guy’s and St Thomas’s Trust and Imperial College.

Dr Stephen Simpson, director of research at medical research charity Arthritis Research UK said: “The reason for setting up the centre is that we simply don’t know enough about the best ways of keeping people with musculoskeletal conditions in employment. Our researchers will be working with employees, employers and the medical profession to find solutions to what is a major issue for society, and we expect it will lead to some direct, practical outcomes.”

Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the Medical Research Council said: “The health and wellbeing of the UK workforce is vital to our economy. As demographic changes mean more people are working later in their lives, we must further our understanding of how to maintain healthy work environments to minimise the impact of ill health on our productivity.

“This new multi-disciplinary centre capitalises on decades of MRC investment in occupational research, and aims to help employees, employers and policy makers face the challenges arising from the need to extend working lives while reducing employee turnover and absenteeism. Our continued partnership with Arthritis Research UK demonstrates the MRC’s commitment to working closely with research charities where our aims are aligned, to maximise the impact of funding for health research in the UK.”

Faculty of Medicine

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