You don't have to be a boss to stay healthy on the job

A sweeping new analysis has robust evidence that chronic lower back pain is higher in people who aren't managers. Here's how to change that.

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If you can't be a boss, you should at least act like a boss. It'll be better for your health, specifically your lower back.

A new analysis conducted by researchers in Germany of 19,000 data sets over 18 different studies has found shored up "robust evidence" that chronic lower back pain -- CLBP, for short -- is higher among people who are not bosses. To put it another way, your boss probably, maybe, has less CLBP than you.

But it doesn't have to be that way. A number of studies, including this one, suggest that acting autonomously -- manifest destiny, D.I.Y., all of that -- can improve your physical health. The mental and physical are connected and this study is another example of how.

So how do you put this into action? Getting out of your own head is a major first step. Sitting at your desk all day as a sort of performative professionalism isn't helpful if it's not helping you work more creatively or efficiently.

Here are a few Inverse tips on how to train yourself to act more autonomously at the office:

  • Set reminders to stand or move locations in your office, every day.
  • With project collaboration apps like Microsoft Teams, it's easier than ever to work from outside the office and still keep pace to achieve your team's goals. Look for openings in your week and suggest that you work from home or from a satellite office that day.
  • Look for opportunities to change the culture at your office if it will help you do your work better. If your office culture encourages behaviors like sitting at your desk for long periods and not enabling freedom of movement, talk with your manager about how that sort of fluidity would foster a more energized team.

It can't hurt to mention these steps could improve employee health, too.

Social psychologist Dr. Anne Tomaschek, who worked on the study, sums up the results of the study like this:

"People with a high workload suffered more frequently from chronic low back pain. Employees with more job control were less affected. It was also shown that back pain was lower when people received social support at work from their superiors and colleagues," she says.

The research was conducted at the Dresden University of Technology and published this week in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders.

Dr. Denise Dörfel, a professor at TU Dresden, offers a few additional tips for improving employee health by allowing them to act with more independence at work: "This meta-analysis provides important insights for public health and human resource management. A redesign of working conditions could reduce pain-related absenteeism. Flexible breaks, more autonomy in scheduling the work, all this reduces the workload."

"We have the technology" is an old phrase from a great old TV show. As studies like this show, it's in our best interest to use it. Get out of the office, act like a boss. Maybe a collaboration app can help you do it.


Study Background
The aim of this review was to synthesize the evidence on the potential relationship between psychosocial work factors from the Areas of Worklife (AW) model (workload, job control, social support, reward, fairness, and values) and chronic low back pain (CLBP; unspecific pain in the lumbar region lasting 3 months or longer).
We conducted a systematic literature search of studies in Medline, PsycINFO, Web of Science, and CINAHL (1987 to 2018). Three authors independently assessed eligibility and quality of studies. In this meta-analysis, we pooled studies’ effect sizes using a random-effects model approach and report sample size weighted mean Odds Ratios (ORs).
Data from 18 studies (N = 19,572) was included in the analyses. We found no studies investigating associations between fairness or values and CLBP. CLBP was significantly positively related to workload (OR = 1.32) and significantly negatively related to overall job control (OR = 0.81), decision authority (OR = 0.72), and two measures of social support (ORs = 0.75 to 0.78), even in prospective studies. Skill discretion and reward did not significantly relate to CLBP. Moderation analyses revealed several variables (e.g., exposure time, mean age and sex) affecting these relationships.
Our results support employees’ workload, job control, and social support as predictors of CLBP. In this line, these work factors should be considered when developing programs to prevent chronic low back pain. Future studies should apply measures of CLBP that are more precise, and investigate the full areas of work life (AW) factors in combination.
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