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Back Pain and Burnout – 5 Principles to Reduce the Impact of Pain Amidst the Burnout Epidemic

Physiotherapist Samantha Moss explores cultural issues around back pain in the workplace and how to tackle it.

Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

This month the World Health Organization categorised burnout-out as a syndrome, telling us that symptoms include; exhaustion, negativity and distance. With over 3 million work days being lost to back pain in the U.K. alone. It’s time to look at beliefs around burnout, back pain and what we can do in the workplace to improve our quality of work life balance.

Spoiler alert! You are not alone. Low back pain is a huge problem the world over. According to a systematic review, western and non-western cultures share similar beliefs and experiences around low back pain. Pain does not care where you live. And the really interesting bit? Work and societal factors are stated as high on the list for negatively impacting back pain.

So, what is it about our working and cultural lives that perpetuate back pain?

Researchers in New Zealand had some in depth chats with a group suffering from short- and long-term back pain to explore. They found the following key themes:

1.       The back is vulnerable and needs protecting

2.       Back pain is threatening because it’s complex, unpredictable, affects daily life and has a societal stigma.

3.       People are moving towards psychological approaches of improving above physical.

Read: Our ‘weak’ backs are touchy subjects that people don’t like to share as they seem vulnerable and people are innately tapping into the psychological link between pain and mental health. Whilst the sample group were pretty small, it’s safe to say that the themes are valid and with the WHO now defining burnout formally. This is great news for opening up communication about our health at work.

What can we do to challenge this negative narrative around our suffering spines? Well, as a group of physiotherapists in the UK have shown, a little information goes a long way. Just a 90 min education and activity session encouraged exercise and reduced pain for over 90% of a group of participants. Add some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to tackle negative thoughts about pain and you have a recipe for success!

With so many of us striving for balance, here are 5 key principles to practice at work to reduce the impact of pain amidst the burnout epidemic.

Ask for Help

Yep, the stigma around pain and needing support is, sadly, still present. However, hiding and not asking is not serving you. If you need; a better desk, regular walking breaks, a shift change to allow you to get to your exercise class or CBT session. Then proudly ask for it. Imagine it was someone asking for your help? You would never refuse them assistance with pain. Eat the frog and ask for better.

Raise Your Awareness

Irritable? Sleeping badly? Aches in places you didn’t know you had? These are signs you are running on empty; your resilience is wavering, and this is when my patients report a back spasm or increase in pain. Which is the body’s way of telling you to rest. Don’t let it get that far. The message is that the body needs something. Take a moment to reflect on what you have been depriving yourself of lately? Book reading time perhaps? Snuggles on the sofa with your partner? Just a suggestion…

Move, Move and Move

With stress and burnout being associated with raised cortisol and adrenaline levels, what better way than to beat them into submission with a bit of push and pull! Exercise releases endorphins, those happy and relaxing chemicals that are the kryptonite to burnout. Taking yourself out of work for a jog, gym session, Yoga class has the added bonus of escaping your boss for a bit too!

Sleep

If you are on reading a Thrive article, then mostly likely you know about the importance of sleep. But does that mean you are doing it? Here is a gentle reminder to break up with your phone an hour before bedtime, take a relaxing bath, say out loud 5 things you are grateful for about your day, read a real book for a few mins, before you succumb to some restorative Zzzzs!

Reframe Your Thoughts Toward the Positive

When work and life balance is too much and back ache is sneaking in, try flipping the thought process to see the positive. If you are thinking: ‘I’m overwhelmed with my to do list’? Then try: ‘I’m a talented and resourceful person and will prioritise to give my best and that will do’.

Perhaps you are worrying that: ‘My back is starting to ache, what if ‘goes completely’??’. Try: my back is starting to send messages, what do I need? Hydration, rest, movement, sleep?

There is wisdom in pain, try to respect these messages and be proactive in taking care of yourself and setting the example to others that burnout, persistent pain and exhaustion are not par for the course. You are more important.

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