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New research funding to continue reducing the burden of work disability

Published: 21 June 2019
Professor Karen Walker-Bone
Professor Karen Walker-Bone - Director, National Centre of Excellence for Musculoskeletal Health

Significant funding award ensures collaborative Centre will continue to make an impact on reducing the burden of work disability caused by musculoskeletal conditions

Medical researchers from the University of Southampton have led a successful collaborative application to renew the National Centre of Excellence for Musculoskeletal Health and Work for a further five years (2019-24).

The £2.2 million, awarded by Versus Arthritis and the Medical Research Council, to continue discovering and developing cost-effective ways to reduce the burden of work disability caused by musculoskeletal conditions (MSDs). These include low back pain, osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis, gout and rarer conditions such as lupus, which cost an estimated 30.6 million working days to be lost each year.

The Centre, established in 2014 with an initial investment of £1.4 million over 5 years, is coordinated from the University of Southampton’s Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit (MRC LEU), based at Southampton General Hospital. The Centre involves multidisciplinary collaboration with the Universities of Aberdeen, Bath Spa, Keele, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Salford and colleagues at Guys’ and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, the King’s Centre for Military Health Research and the Institute for Employment Studies.

The UK has the highest rates of new claims for disability of any of the Organisation of Economic and Commercial Development (OECD) countries with the two most common causes of disability being musculoskeletal disorders and mental health conditions.

Over the last five years, the initial investment in the Centre has enabled the MRC LEU to build collaborations and develop a critical mass of research skills as well as a talented group of early career scientists now supported to strengthen research capacity in key areas. From the initial award, collaborators have also succeeded in leveraging an additional £5 million for work and health research on which the Centre expects to build substantially.

“There is plenty of evidence that people with musculoskeletal conditions want to work but that they often need support and suitable adjustments from employers to enable them to work,” said Professor Karen Walker-Bone, Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Musculoskeletal Health and Work. “We have put forward an ambitious plan for research that will take place in healthcare settings, public health and workplaces over the next 5 years in order to better understand how to make differences in all these areas. Moreover, we will lead development of consensus work outcome measures and develop economic approaches to inform employers of the benefit of investing in prevention of MSDs.”

“We have found that this is a “hot” area for policy-makers and we plan to strengthen our ability to provide rapidly responsive information to policy-makers,” Professor Walker-Bone continued. “We are delighted to receive this significant uplifted investment.”

A spokesperson for funding body Versus Arthritis: “Arthritis and related conditions affect 17.8 million people in the UK and can cause excruciating pain and fatigue. Living with these conditions can steal people’s independence, preventing them from being able to remain in work. Our insight shows many people leave work due to lack of support, suitable adjustments and understanding of their condition from employers. It’s no surprise then that musculoskeletal conditions are the second leading cause of days lost at work.

“We are therefore proud to support, alongside the MRC, the centre for a further 5 years, so that we are able to continue to invest in important research to bring benefits to people with arthritis. This investment will help ensure that the UK does not miss out on the skills and passion that people living with arthritis can offer in the workplace.”

Professor Cyrus Cooper, Director of the MRC LEU and a co-PI of the Centre of Excellence said: “This success is testimony to the wonderful national investigative team built around this University of Southampton Centre, addressing critical issues in Work and Musculoskeletal Health."

Professor Gary Macfarlane (Deputy Director of the Centre and Dean of Research (Life Sciences and Medicine) at the University of Aberdeen) added: “This national collaboration is giving much greater visibility to work issues which people with musculoskeletal conditions face. We are undertaking research allowing us to give effective early support to persons who wish to remain in work and the evidence suggests that doing so is an important aspect in them maintaining their quality of life.”

Professor Stephen Bevan, Director, Employer Research & Consultancy, said: “IES is delighted to be part of the Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work. MSK has a significant impact on both the quality of working life and productivity in the U.K with almost 31 million days of sickness absence each year and 23 per cent of all working days lost. Our role will be to support the flow of research evidence from the Centre to policy makers and practitioners, building on our long tradition of expertise in the health and employment field.”

The MRC LEU, University of Southampton hosts the Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work. Directed by Professor Walker-Bone, and involving several Southampton colleagues (Professor Cooper, Professor David Coggon, Dr Linaker, Dr Harris, Dr Syddall, Dr Ntani, Ms D’Angelo, Mr Stevens, Ms Zaballa).

 

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