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March 18, 2004
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Research focuses on
reducing pain at work
By Sharon Gray
A study on joint pain in sedentary office workers points to the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs. The 15-month study, called Working Well, will help determine whether a pain self-management program affects employee productivity and absenteeism.

“Preliminary results of the study have found a high burden of musculoskeletal pain in the workplace,” said Dr. Proton Rahman, head of the St. Clare’s Rheumatology Research Team and an associate professor of medicine at Memorial University. “We hope to empower employees to take control of their health and teach them skills to manage their pain, making them happier and more productive members of the workforce.”

Partners on the research project are the Arthritis Society, Newfoundland and Labrador Division, Atlantic Blue Cross Care, Pfizer Canada Inc. and St. Clare’s Rheumatology Research Team of the Health Care Corporation of St. John's.

Working WELL researchers found nearly 60 per cent of participants suffered musculoskeletal discomfort at work. Reported conditions include osteoarthritis (17.6 per cent), repetitive strain injury (15.8 per cent), carpel tunnel syndrome (7.3 per cent), chronic pain (6.7 per cent), fibromyalgia (5.5 per cent) and rheumatoid arthritis (1.8 per cent).

A total of 165 individuals from Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the St. John’s Office of Atlantic Blue Cross Care enrolled in the study, with 67 in the control group and 98 in the intervention group. The intervention program included six weeks of education seminars with health care professionals on topics such as office ergonomics, exercise, nutrition, stress management and coping skills. All participants hold sedentary office jobs and spend at least half the workday sitting.

Jill Seviour, a longtime physiotherapist for the St. John's Health Care Corporation, worked with participants and said they learned how to assess their work stations and about disease prevention and self-management. “A couple of phone books under your feet or a rolled towel to support your lower back – these everyday items are available to everyone. We’re looking at several factors that contribute to health, from ergonomics at work and at home, exercise, nutrition, sleep and relaxation, and how to communicate about physical and mental stress at work.”

The intervention group had 98 participants. Of those, 86 completed the post-evaluation form and rated the program high in the categories “understandability,” “informative” and “recommendable.” In the intervention group, on average there was a mean increase of 45 per cent in participants’ knowledge about workplace wellness and pain management.

“Employers recognize prevention and health education is key to fighting rising health care costs,” said Laurier Fecteau, vice-president, Marketing, Atlantic Blue Cross Care. “They are interested in programs that can improve the well-being of their employees, while increasing productivity and potentially preventing or delaying the onset of disability.”

Arthritis and chronic pain significantly affect the quality of life of thousands of working Canadians, and arthritis accounts for 25 per cent of all long-term disability claims in the country. “A program to help alleviate pain, significant discomfort and decreased mobility in the working population is a positive step for those who live with arthritis and musculoskeletal pain every day,” said Beverly Byrd, executive director of the Arthritis Society, Newfoundland and Labrador Division. “The Arthritis Society is always supportive of finding solutions to living and ‘working well’ with this disease.”

Pfizer Canada Inc. provided an unrestricted grant for the study. “As a leader in the treatment of arthritis and pain, we are committed to supporting innovative partnerships and initiatives that improve health and wellness,” said Gerald McCarron, senior manager of Patient Access and Health Policy for Pfizer Canada Inc. in Atlantic Canada. “The Working Well program is an important collaborative effort and the research will help employers and employees alike.”

Dr. Rahman said the main driving force for the study was master’s student Samra Mian, physiotherapist Jill Seviour and occupational therapist Kim Doyle. The other participants were nurse Yvonne Tobin, undergraduate student Karim Marzouk, and Drs. Tanis Adey and Angela Penny.

“We are now awaiting the one year absenteeism data to be gathered,” said Dr. Rahman. “If this program increases knowledge and decreases absenteeism then we will then do a large cost effectiveness study. If this is also positive we will propose to widely implement the Working Well Program widely to office workers.”


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