Work absenteeism and recurrent neck pain

In brief

  • A small but important minority (14%) of injured workers who make a claim involving neck pain to Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) have multiple episodes off work on benefits. This group is responsible for 40 per cent of all lost-time days due to neck pain in a two-year study period.
  • Most injured workers who make claims involving neck pain have a single episode on benefits and they are off work for an average of 11 days. (Of note, the average length of this single episode is shorter than the length of the first episode for those with multiple episodes.)
  • Recurrent claims for neck pain represent a significant burden of disability.

Published: January 2011

Why was this study done?

Neck pain is a common and burdensome disorder in most industrialized countries. The global prevalence of neck pain in workers varies from 27 to 48 per cent in any given year, resulting in work limitations in 11 to 14 per cent of workers. Yet very little is known about the course of work absenteeism related to this type of pain. This study was done to describe the course of lost-time claims involving neck pain in workers compensated by WSIB.

How was the study done?

Researchers identified 5,761 injured workers (18 years of age and above) who had a WSIB lost-time claim involving neck pain in 1997 or 1998, and who had not been on workers’ compensation benefits due to neck pain the year before. Researchers followed what happened to these injured workers in the two years after their initial claim. They measured the total time on lost-time benefits, as well as the number of times on benefits, and the length of time associated with the benefits.

What did the researchers find?

The average total time on benefits for injured workers with neck pain was 13 days during the two years following the initial claim. This time was shorter for men than for women, and for younger workers than for older workers.

Most injured workers who made workers’ compensation claims that involved neck pain only had a single episode on benefits within a two-year period. The average time on benefits for injured workers with a single episode was 11 days. Younger workers were more likely than older workers to have only one episode of work absenteeism, and women and men were equally likely to have only one episode.

However, 14 per cent of claimants with a claim for neck pain had multiple episodes on benefits during the two-year follow-up period. For this group, the average number of absentee days was 19 to 22. Workers experiencing multiple episodes were responsible for 40 per cent of all lost-time days due to neck pain during the study period.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

The strength of the study is that researchers only followed workers who had not had a claim involving neck pain during the previous year. However, the study does not count actual cases of neck pain, only the number of claims—hence, this study could be capturing the ‘tip of the iceberg.’