Workers Health & Safety Centre

Chronic back pain reduced by work autonomy and social support, study

Well-designed jobs should take into account physical and psychosocial work factors to help reduce the risk of workers developing chronic low back pain says a new study.  

Broadening psychosocial work factors

According to researchers, about 23 per cent of the population suffers from chronic low back pain (CLBP) making it one of the most common chronic musculoskeletal disorders.

In this study, published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, researchers set out to review existing research to explore a possible association between psychosocial workplace factors and the development of CLBP, defined as pain in the lumbar region lasting three months or longer.

The research team was comprised of psychologists from the Technische Universität Dresden plus health science researchers and other experts from the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. They completed a systematic review of some 19,000 data sets from 18 different studies on chronic low back pain and psychosocial risk factors dating from 1987 to 2018.

Much of the existing research on low back pain has been conducted using the well-established Job-Demands-Control model. It assumes high job strain (characterized by high job demands and low job control) increases the risk for developing low back pain.

For this study, researchers adopted the more expansive Areas of Worklife (AW) model, which combines well-established risk factors with newer, less studied ones. The AW framework, used most often to study burnout at work, considers six psychosocial work factors: workload, job control, social support, reward, fairness and values. With few available studies on reward, fairness and values, however these factors were excluded from this study.  

Researchers found high workload was a significant predictor of CLBP. Similarly significant, workers who had more job control and received social support at work from supervisors and colleagues also reported less back pain. On the other hand, researchers found lack of control and support are associated with a higher risk of the back pain becoming chronic. With such findings, the need for prevention measures become more urgent.

Redesigning work to reduce pain

This study adds to a growing body of research that finds that well-designed jobs must consider a host of physical and psychosocial work factors to protect worker well-being. As the nature of work and employment relationships change, employers need to consider not only ergonomic interventions, but also a range of organizational policies and practices to address physical and psychosocial risk factors conclude the study authors. "These data provide an important basis for the development of prevention programs," says Dr. Denise Dörfel, Chair of Work and Organisational Psychology. "A redesign of working conditions could reduce pain-related absenteeism. Flexible breaks, more autonomy in scheduling the work, all this reduces the workload," explains Dörfel. "Social support from colleagues and more feedback and recognition from superiors may also help."

Researchers closer to home are also exploring the role of psychosocial work factors in protecting and indeed promoting worker mental health. A 2019 study by the Institute for Work and Health found a “stronger relationship between psychosocial work conditions and the prevalence of having flourishing mental health compared to the prevalence of being free of disorders.”  

Workers Health & Safety Centre supports workplace parties with comprehensive training programs and information services. Equipped with this training, workplace representatives are better prepared to play an active role in prevention efforts including designing work that promote workers’ mental and physical health. WHSC offers a suite of Ergonomic Resources as well as several Ergonomics Training programs and Mental Health at Work Training.

A new WHSC program on psychosocial hazards at work and their prevention is also in development. News of its launch is coming soon.

To learn more: 
Call:    1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak with a training services representative