Before building a musculoskeletal (MSK) health strategy, it's important to understand some of the foundational elements.

Culture is the bedrock of any workplace MSK strategy. It sets the tone for your organization. Without a supportive culture, your efforts are likely to fall short of making a real impact.

Enhancing your knowledge can help you recognize and better understand:

  • back issues, and
  • factors in the workplace that influence MSK health, specific to the back.

Key element:

Leadership commitment is paramount to fostering a physically healthy and safe workplace. Leaders play a critical role in changing workplace culture and supporting the needs of the workplace.

Leaders include senior leadership, managers and other people leaders. Leaders who champion the values of physically healthy workplaces are likely to act in ways that support employees and, in doing so, boost the physical health of employees. Leaders’ actions also help to set the norm and the tone in the workplace. They act as Normalizers-in-Chief.

Key elements:

  1. Senior leader sponsor & champion
  2. Commitment / Value statement
  3. Allocating resources

1. Senior leader sponsor & champion

As with any effort to change workplace culture, it’s critical for the owner, President or CEO to champion workplace physical health. They also need to hold the leadership team accountable. Leaders play an important role in shaping culture, especially when sharing their own personal stories.

The senior leadership sponsor(s) and champion(s) are going to be the owners. They’re responsible for the strategy.

The sponsor(s) should be senior leaders. They need to have the power and authority to make decisions at the highest level. They will:

  • advocate for the strategy;
  • make sure there are enough resources to support the work;
  • remove barriers to help the champion(s) in meeting their targets.

The champion(s) should be passionate about workplace physical health. They will be the ‘face’ of the strategy. They will:

  • design, develop and implement the strategy;
  • actively work with, and engage, all workers in the organization;
  • communicate frequently to all workplace stakeholders.

In some organizations the sponsor and the champion may be the same person. In other organizations there might be many champions and sponsors. If your organization’s workplace is unionized, consider having champions from both management and the unions.

2. Commitment / Value statement

Your physical health strategy needs to align with your workplace vision and values. Leaders play a key role in making that happen by creating a charter or statement about employee physical health. They could add the statement to a current charter or create a stand-alone piece.

3. Allocating resources

For a successful strategy, you need to invest resources (both human and financial). These resources will help build the strategy and give employees the chance to take part.

MSK health committee:

Create a multi-discipline MSK health committee or action team to plan and implement initiatives. There needs to be representation across key groups within your organization. Consider using your current Health and Safety Committee — or create a specific task force. Members could be from:

  • management
  • different employee units, groups, branches
  • health and safety
  • human resources
  • marketing and communications
  • diversity and inclusion
  • unions

Members of the task force will be champions for change. They’ll make sure the action plan meets the needs of your culture. Having a task force that represents all employees will also help increase employee buy-in. They will be more engaged in the process and committed to its success.

What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is the mix of values, beliefs and expectations that a group holds in common. Workplace culture cues employees to what is acceptable behaviour and how to solve problems.

Why is it important?

A poor workplace culture can cause negative health outcomes among workers. Workers tend to be less productive and engaged, and there is less shared problem solving.

An organization with a health-focused culture enhances:

  • employee well-being;
  • job satisfaction;
  • organizational commitment;
  • social support.

It can also help retain and attract employees. A physically healthy and safe workplace culture makes employees feel more comfortable coming forward with MSK health concerns. It can help keep employees at work. It can also support them when they return to work if they have been off on disability.

What happens when a culture is not supportive?

A negative culture can:

  • undermine the effectiveness of the best programs, policies and services put in place to support the workforce;
  • increase stress, which lowers employee well-being.

For example, a culture driven entirely by production and profit creates a workplace where safety takes a back seat. This results in an increased chance of accidents and injury.

Key elements:

  1. Building a learning culture
  2. Healthy communication

1. Building a learning culture

A learning culture can help improve an organization’s bottom line. Fostering a learning culture can improve productivity, employee engagement and retention. An organization that supports a culture of having an open mind, the willingness to learn, and a collective shared vision demonstrates that its mission, goals and values are directly aligned with its employee population. Leaders can ultimately help to empower their employees to take action and be in charge of their own learning.

Here are four ways an organization can build a learning culture:

  • reward continuous learning
  • give meaningful and constructive feedback
  • lead by example
  • be curious

2.  Healthy communication

Senior leaders who talk about MSK health can:

  • break the ice;
  • set the tone;
  • change the conversation from fear to sharing new ways to support and help.

Leaders can also help empower employees at risk to get help early.

A physically safe workplace will empower and enable employees to do their best. Leaders play an important role in creating these conditions.

Some initial steps to take action:

  • Make an all staff announcement on your commitment to workplace MSK health. Show a genuine commitment. The message should come from the senior leader sponsor and the champion.
  • Put MSK health on the agenda using special events to create focus. Encourage open discussion about MSK health.
  • Set performance measures for leaders around the MSK health and well-being of their teams.

Before building a MSK health strategy, it is important to understand some of the foundational elements. These include:

  1. Definitions
  2. Symptoms:
  3. Work-related factors:

1. Definitions

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs): an umbrella term for injuries and disorders of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and nerves.1

 Other terms for MSD include:
 MSK: Musculoskeletal
 RSI: Repetitive Strain Injury
 CTD: Cumulative Trauma Disorder
 WRMD: Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders

Muscle injury: includes strains, pulls and bruises causing damage to the muscle resulting in acute or prolonged pain.

Tendon injury: tendon disorders are often caused by repetitive or frequent activities and awkward postures. Excessive repetition and movement can cause tendons to tear or even rupture. This can result in inflammation and pain.

Nerve injury: repetitive motions and awkward postures can cause nerves to become swollen and inflamed. This results in muscle weakness, numbness, and sensations of pins and needles.

Bone injury: typically a fractured bone. It can range from a thin crack to a complete break. Bones can fracture crosswise, lengthwise, in several places, or into many pieces. Most fractures happen when the force of impact to a bone is more pressure than it can support.

Ligament injury: Ligaments play an important role in supporting the bones and joints in your body. Damage can lead to joint instability. Any sudden force affecting the ligaments can result in tears or, in more severe cases, a complete rupture.

Back pain: a term used to describe MSK disorders that affect the bones, cartilange, ligaments, discs, nerves and muscles around the spine.2

2. Symptoms:

Recognizing the signs of common MSK health issues is important to understand how to take appropriate action.

Common back pain symptoms include:2

  • dull or sharp aches and pains
  • muscle spasms
  • tightness
  • pain on movement or after prolonged sitting or standing
  • difficulty standing up straight
  • difficulty walking 
  • pain down the back of the leg (sciatica)

Sciatica: The sciatic nerve is located in the lower back and goes down through the buttock. Damage or irritation can cause pain, tingling or numbness down the back of the leg, to the ankle and foot.

3. Work-related factors:

Some work-related factors that can cause back pain include:3

  • lifting with spine flexed forward or twisted
  • repetitive lifting
  • sitting in vehicles or standing on vibrating platforms (whole body vibrations)
  • prolonged sitting
  • sitting with spine flexed or twisted
  • fatigue 


1Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders. Work Shouldn’t Hurt – About MSD

2Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders. Work Shouldn’t Hurt – Types of MSD

3Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders. Work Shouldn’t Hurt – Work and MSD Hazards

There are a number of risk factors that increase the likelihood of injury. We’ve highlighted some of the top risk factors, and tips for prevention, that you can share with your employees here.