Around half of the population in the UK are in work, and for some, their work may affect their health. Ill-health may arise because of people being exposed to hazards - physical, chemical, biological or psychological or from accidents at work. It’s not always easy to determine whether an illness is genuinely ‘work-related’ or would have happened anyway. Most organs of the body can be harmed by adverse working conditions and many substances in the workplace can affect someone’s health. Some people find it difficult to cope with work because they are unwell.
Some employers provide occupational health support and many use the work environment to help people maintain or improve their health – encouraging exercise, arranging for ‘flu vaccinations, arranging blood pressure and other health checks.
It’s sometimes the GP who diagnoses occupationally acquired diseases like asthma or musculoskeletal and skin disorders. They can interact with the worker’s occupational health team or boss (with the patient’s permission) and be an independent adviser about when it is right for a patient to return to work after an episode of illness.
It is too easy to assume that all effects of work on health must be negative. Having a job has positive psychosocial benefits and can boost someone’s physical health by maintaining their muscular fitness and stamina, together with general cardio-respiratory fitness, as well as providing the income for good food, leisure activities, holidays and a safe home. Unemployment is associated with low self-esteem and chronic depression.
Q1. I work for myself as an odd jobber, gardening and decorating houses. My GP has recently diagnosed me as having tennis elbow and told me to be careful how I lift heavy objects. Is tennis elbow related to my work? What can I do?
A. Tennis elbow can arise spontaneously but is common if you put strain on your forearm muscles by using hand tools or working with the back of your hand bent towards you and your elbow partly bent. The problem is common for plasterers, joiners and bricklayers or computer operators who use a 'mouse' pointing device for much of their work. But it can arise from playing sport, like badminton. Sometimes a doctor will recommend rest, or anti-inflammatory cream or maybe a steroid injection. Once you realise what arm movements trigger tennis elbow- avoid doing tasks in that way.
Q2. I’ve been told that my back pain may be work related. I teach young children and do occasionally lift chairs & tables, but my GP said it might be due to the hours I spend on the computer writing reports and teaching plans.
A. Low back pain is common and often persistent or recurrent. Heavy manual handling or repeated bending may trigger low back pain, but people in lighter jobs can have similar symptoms. The longer someone is off work with low back pain, the lower their chances of returning, so find a seat with good back support when on your computer or driving in a car and take regular breaks to move about.