By By Lorna Taylor, physiotherapist
Lorna Taylor is a physiotherapist and founder of Jolly Back
It’s wonderful to see mental health and emotional wellbeing gaining much-deserved explanation, recognition and exposure in society in recent years. This has directly benefitted many people in addition to raising awareness of the causes and symptoms for many more, but, as a physiotherapist and healthcare professional, I wonder if we should be looking at our (and our children’s wellbeing) more holistically.
Just as with pain (it’s the person, not the body part, which feels it), wellbeing is personal to each one of us and is not accomplished by a single intervention, nor is it a “fixed state”. It’s the result of our own psychological, physical and social resources balanced by the challenges we face.
Emotional and physical health are directly linked and there are many known ideas which benefit both – activity, healthy eating, sleep, supportive relationships, for example. But how are we genuinely embracing and encouraging these within the challenging education and childcare sectors?
Research shows there are clear links between musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) (back, neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain and muscle aches, which we know are prevalent when working with young children), mental illness and work loss.
For example, pain leads to reduced mobility, limitation of activities and fatigue, which leads in turn to a loss of confidence and fear of pain and future long-term impact, which feeds further anxiety and avoidance behaviour. A chronic pain and debilitating cycle result – which explains how back pain and physical injury can result in long-term sickness absence if not dealt with quickly.
From the opposite angle, emotional stress often manifests itself as a musculoskeletal disorder (physical pain) as physiological changes occur in the body. When we are subjected to sustained emotional stress, our heart rate increases, muscles tighten (especially in the neck and shoulders) and blood pressure rises.
At the same time, our behaviour is likely to change – we are less likely to think about our “tense and uptight” posture, take rest breaks or relax. This results in an increased risk of injury and feeling despondent. Again, an unhealthy and destructive cycle can establish.
It may not now surprise you to know employees with MSDs (including back pain) are at a higher risk of emotional stress, anxiety and depression. Whilst depression is four times more likely for those who are in persistent pain.
Psychological distress, depression and anxiety increase the activation of the body’s pain system so, although the pain felt is very real, the brain adapts to sense pain at a reduced level and intensity. We all have different pain thresholds and those too differ with the emotional pressure we are under. It’s clear to see why “work-life balance” is so important for “wellness”.
Another important consideration when investing in employee health and wellbeing is that someone with depression is likely to take longer to recover from back pain and require more time off work. Chronic pain also takes longer to treat than acute/newly-felt symptoms. Injury prevention and early intervention measures are cost effective.
Prevention and early intervention
Employers need to look at reducing MSDs, together with supporting improved mental health and wellbeing. Prevention and early intervention really are key. Open culture and supportive leadership are especially important, and even more so when considering the impact education professionals have on children’s learning.
It’s imperative too, especially in such challenging times of teacher retention and recruitment, that organisations develop ways to support their teams (physically and emotionally) and that leaders themselves are supported.