How is our research helping to keep people in work?

An office worker using a stand up desk.

Pain associated with musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions such as arthritis and lower back pain are some of the main causes of work disability in the UK. Resulting in the loss of around 30 million working days per year (second only to coughs and colds).

To find better treatments and support, more scientific evidence is needed to help people living with arthritis and to inform employers.

Since it started in 2014, the “Medical Research Council (MRC) Versus Arthritis Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work” has been looking for this evidence.

The centre’s main objective is to find cost-effective ways to reduce the impact of musculoskeletal conditions in the workplace and act as a national resource for information and advice on musculoskeletal health and work issues.

Their advice will be available to government, employers, workers, health professional such as GPs and patients.

So, what have they been working on?

Over the last five years some exciting research has been going on at the centre, some highlights include:

The study includes more than 8000 adults aged between 50-64 years to explore the impact of MSK conditions on the ability to work at older ages, and how job loss can impact both physical and psychological health. The findings are being referenced in reports to government and public health England and influencing NHS guidelines.

  • The CUPID study has discovered wide variation in disabling pain reported in groups of people with similar jobs but in different countries.

This data looked at over 12,000 workers, helping to understand cultural and psychological influences on MSK health and disability.

  • Assembling a team of researchers, from PhD students to specialists in occupational medicine.

  • Building collaborations with many other organisations now approaching the centre for expert advice in this area. Their expertise is also supporting Versus Arthritis advice about working with arthritis.

There’s more research to do

Funding for the centre has been renewed for a further five years, during which it will:

Partner with businesses to improve MSK support

Working with employers in different types of workplace (small to large employers, public and private sector) to measure how the impact of MSK conditions varies depending on where you work.

Researchers will understand how employers manage staff with MSK conditions and what support employees feel they need. Researchers will also evaluate initiatives delivered to NHS staff (including health checks, exercise opportunities and health advice) to see if they have helped to improve MSK health in the workplace.

Develop an advice service for reducing absence from work

Previous work at the centre tested an advice service in primary care. The trial showed that the advice from healthcare professionals helped patients to understand and overcome barriers to remaining in (or returning to) work.

The service helped to reduce days absent from work compared to standard care. The research continues and the intention is to scale up this service and better target this advice to people who can benefit most.

Influencing policy

Following on from successes such as the HEAF study which have influenced government and NHS policy, the centre is further developing relationship with policy makers.

The researchers hope to become a source for timely and accessible information for workplace policy makers. The centre is also making sure all its future work is designed with policy makers in mind, to maximise the impact on shaping health and work policy.

Working in collaboration

The research centre is led from the University of Southampton with partners from the Universities of Aberdeen, Lancaster, Liverpool, Oxford, Manchester, Salford, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and Imperial College, London.

This network brings together researchers with a diversity of expertise, helping them to answer the important questions about MSK health and work.

The centre is also a collaboration between Versus Arthritis and the Medical Research Council who both contribute to funding this centre, which will now continue until 2024. For more information about the work of this centre visit their website.

Find out more about our research.