I am a manager of a large work force in a physical (not virtual) setting. Many of our middle-aged workers (the dependable “lifers” we call them) are dropping out and into early retirement due to back problems. It costs us much more to train someone new than to rehab a good, productive worker. What can we do to stop the “strain drain” (our term for lost productivity due to back pain).

You are not alone in pondering this question. A recent study from Australia seems to have hit the nail on the head. Like you, they noticed that early retirement due to spinal disorders is costing a bundle (in the billions). Lost personal wages leads to lost taxable income and decreased spending. And consequently, there are fewer dollars in the government coffers to support the national budget.

The problem and the impact of the problem are clear. What can be done about this? Everyone agrees we need a Plan. The authors of the study we mentioned suggested a two-step approach. First, prevention of spinal disorders and second, getting injured workers or workers with painful spinal disorders back to work rather than into retirement. These are the keys to keeping the labor force in full work participation.

Research has shown that exercise is one way to prevent (or if necessary: to manage) spinal disorders. In fact, when comparing different forms of exercise (stretching, calisthenics, aerobics, coordination, strength training, relaxation) people generally improve across the board. There are fewer episodes of back pain, less absenteeism at work, and greater productivity.

A more specific approach may be needed for those workers who continue to experience a decreased ability to carry out daily activities due to back pain from spinal disorders. Rather than a global exercise approach, physical therapy to address individual problems may be helpful.

And when conservative (nonoperative) care fails to get the worker back into the labor force, surgery has been shown to benefit many people. Even with the added costs of these treatment measures, they are more cost-effective than not getting anyone back on the job.

The Plan proposed by these researchers also includes government investment in preventive health measures. Spending money to prevent chronic spine problems that would otherwise force early retirement of workers still capable of staying in the labor force will ultimately pay off. More workers on-the-job means more taxable income and government revenue to support government budgets.

The authors concluded that the cost of early retirement because of spinal disorders is very high. Maintaining the health of the work force and prevention of spinal disorders is important now and into the future. In fact, these goals are essential to the personal health of the labor force as well as the economic health of the country. A national plan of action must be put into place soon before the work force dwindles further.

At the local level, employing the skills of a physical therapist to evaluate the work setting and suggest ways to prevent injuries is a good place to start. The therapist can help you set up group exercise programs as well as evaluate individual workers when a specific rehab program is needed. Programs like the Back Care Boot Camp (available through our Medical Multimedia Group) can also be very effective under the supervision of your therapist.