Skip to main content
Civil Service

Let's all be more 'back aware'

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders
Head shot of Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones, Head of the Government Legal Service and Civil Service Health and Well-Being Champion

As Civil Service Health and Well-being Champion, I am only too aware of the risks we face in taking our back health for granted. Back pain can be debilitating and distressing, and our latest figures show that 13% of short-term and 17% of long-term absence in the Civil Service is caused by musculoskeletal conditions.

BackCare is the national charity that promoted the recent BackCare Awareness Week. It is working hard to reduce the burden of back pain by providing information, advice and scientific research. This year there is a particular focus on carers. Many civil servants provide care outside their working days and the resulting physical and emotional stresses can cause back pain. To help, my own department (the Government Legal Department) has a dedicated carers’ network.

Backcare awareness week logo

We don’t have to undertake physically demanding tasks to experience back pain. In fact, working in offices and living sedentary lives carry their own risks. We all need to think about how we can minimise these. These are some of the things we can do:

  • take short breaks from our desks - our Chief People Officer, Rupert McNeil, offered some ideas for this in his July blog
  • maintain a good posture - have you completed a display screen assessment and acted on its results?
  • carry loads in a comfortable rucksack, using both straps, and avoiding sling bags; this is particularly important for those of us regularly carrying laptops and papers
  • lift heavy objects properly, whether at work or at home, to minimise strain on your back
  • learn relaxation techniques - back pain can be caused or exacerbated by stress; looking into mindfulness or increasing your physical activity level could help; a short, practical guide to mindfulness is now available from Civil Service Learning.

'A great place to work' logoMany of these actions can help with overall physical and mental health as well as reducing the risk of experiencing back pain. Where problems do arise, don’t forget to investigate the support available through your department.

Let’s all make sure, as BackCare Awareness Week reminded us, that we think about our backs and whether we need to make changes, inside and outside work, to ensure their health both now and for the future.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by David Archibald posted on

    I suffer from ankylosing spondylitis (spine is gradually fusing together. One of the key issues is movement. I can't emphasise too much the importance of movement, taking walks, stretching etc. Probably the best exercise of all is swimming. You can stretch your back but the weight of your body is supported by water. Posture is also important, If your work station is set out correctly it can make a difference. Which is where I have a problem with many of the features of the showcase office. Much of the seating in the showcase office is not adjustable is too low and leads to a poor posture. Similarly many of the surface pros that are being rolled out across the department are being used by people in unsuitable conditions in unsuitable chairs in atriums etc. where the users are forced to use very unsuitable postures. The fear has to be is that many of the users of such soft furnishings and atriums will be the people with back problems in the future. There really is no substitute for a proper ergonomically designed workstation, and this is something that HMRC has to be aware of as BOF is rolled out.

  2. Comment by M Brown posted on

    Having come back to work from a two week sick leave just 2 weeks ago because of a back problem, I was immediately drawn to this post. Over the years I have worked at Benton Park View I rarely have had a day on the sick, but over the last 5 years the usual ache in my back which, I just usually ignore has in this period evolved into an acute (that is recurring) Muscular-skeletal disorder that has seen me on gas pain killer on three separate occasions in the last 5 years. Two of these occasions were out of the context of the work environment. The last however involved me being taken out of the Benton Park site in the back of an ambulance. Ironically it was the day after I had been to see the on-site physiotherapist (sensing the impending doom when it’s almost upon me). The same thing happened the first time an ambulance had to be called out except my back went into spasm over the weekend after the working week but having seen the Physio on Friday).

    Being brought up to struggle into work whatever, I had struggled into work four weeks ago feeling somewhat hunched up and moving very gingerly. I had already had more than two weeks sick leave in the period (ironically despite my overall sick leave record-because when it comes it tends to come together). But by about twelve I realised I was in no condition to carry on. Decided to cut the day short day and go home to try to recover. However I made the decision to kneel down and found I was unable to get up again I called on my colleague for assistance. She being surprised to see me on the ground leaning on a chair thinking I was wanting technical advice. Luckily for me she had experience of back spasms and new exactly where I was coming from. By that time I had attracted a crowd and after two attempts to get me standing followed by a sharp scream from me, my back experienced colleagues decided the best thing to do was to let me lie on my back and call an ambulance. Anticipating a long wait (last time it was three hours) the ambulance arrived in 18 minutes.

    After the usual long questions I sucked on gas and was put in ironically a wheel chair since I was lying flat to avoid pain. On the way out one of the crew whispered, we know it’s your lifts. Not enough room to lie flat. Our site was rebuilt over a period of about 8 years the oldest office building now being about 16 years old. Even in building it was decided to add a four additional buildings to the site beyond the original six and archive building. And what was thought adequate in lift capacity for carrying people being found lacking in use other ways (Pickfords and the messengers often seen just squeezing in). Maybe it’s time to think of one larger capacity lift in each building it may be a time when someone with a slipped disc doesn’t have to be manhandled into a chair.

  3. Comment by Gabi Humphries posted on

    Great to see that you have a Carers group in your department - I'd like to sing the praises of out Time2Care Staff Network Group also, here at the DVSA. Carers are some of the unsung heroes of the workplace, and back problems often go hand in hand with the types of activities they do in their caring roles.
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Comment by Trevor Ford posted on

    Thank you Jonathan, as well as applications to the workplace the information provided will be further help to my own brother, Brian
    He has suffered with trapped disc, possible degenerative arthritis problems for many years, with four consultants advising against operation-which could make things worse
    My managers have also have also been greatly helpful/understanding
    The 'Alexander method' in physiotherapy could be of great help-along with any other advice in such areas
    Contact information re physiotherapy practices is greatly appreciated and all will be passed on
    Any further information most welcome

  5. Comment by David Mattes posted on

    Most of us who spend our days sitting at desks have adjustable chairs, with all sorts of fancy levers and knobs...and most of us adjust them to suit the length of our legs, not the comfort and support of our backs.

    The loss of production in the Civil Service due to back pain must be enormous, though probably not very different from that in the general, sedate working population.

    What can and should be done about these two problems?

    Answer: height adjustable desks for all – not just those with 'special needs' or medical certificates but people who hot-desk, short people, tall people, medium-sized people with short legs and long backs or with long legs and short backs, etc, etc...everyone!

    And what is stopping Civil Service departments, agencies and other public bodies from co-ordinating their buying power to negotiate a large supply of such desks at rock-bottom unit prices? The savings in lost productivity could be huge but the willpower to act just isn't there.

    I'll shortly be leaving the Civil Service after many years at a fixed raised desk (and with no back pain), so if anyone pays attention to my pleas, I won't be one of those to benefit. Unfortunately no-one has thought fit to make me a Perm Secretary with the power to bring about this change but it would be wonderful to know one day that my comments here have inspired someone with that power to give every civil servant the right to sit at an adjustable desk with an adjustable chair. Doesn't seem much to ask, does it? But it would ease a tremendous amount of suffering and would make one ex-civil servant a very proud old codger.

  6. Comment by Ann Parker posted on

    I have just returned to work following a major operation on my back - the problem was not work related however sitting a desk didn't help. If I can share two pieces of advice it would be to make sure you get up and move at least every hour - even just walk round your desk will help. Secondly think about having your desk raised. I'm not tall - only 5ft 5inch but the higher desk has helped my posture considerably and reduced the pain.

  7. Comment by Chris K posted on

    I find it amazing that we can be so aware of this and yet our procedures prevent required adjustments from being delivered in a reasonable timescale. 5 months after completing my first DSE assessment and requesting a chair and desk I am still waiting.......

  8. Comment by Carolyn McCullough posted on

    I shall pass this on to my colleagues and health champions at HCA - thank you

  9. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Jonathan for drawing attention to this important issue. We all have to undertake a manual handling task during the day and unfortunately, there have been occasions when those undertaking the most straightforward task has put themselves at risk of a back injury.

    • Replies to Gavin Thomas>

      Comment by Jonathan Jones posted on

      Health and safety training provides everyone with basic advice on safe moving and handling at work, the delivery of this will differ within Departments. 

      However, you should have a discussion with your manager if your job role includes a manual handling task. Your manager can then arrange for a manual handling risk assessment to be completed if one is not already in place. The aim of the assessment will be to eliminate the need for manual handling in the task or, if that is not possible, identify measures that will reduce any risk of harm to an acceptable level.

  10. Comment by David Phillip-Pritchard posted on

    I work for the DWP and since first being diagnosed with severe degenerative arthritis of the lower spine, my managers have been brilliant.
    Apart from when I have procedures on my back to help the pain, I have taken no sickness as a direct result of my back problems. I take over 35 tablets each day for pain and muscle related issues as well as oral morphine all of which sometimes mean that things can be a struggle but referrals to OHS have helped me and my managers in how to deal with my circumstances. Admittedly it does get me down to know that my back will get worse and this was confirmed by a further MRI scan in July.
    My advice for anyone struggling with back pain: speak to your line manager, ask for support, accept that you will have limitations and follow whatever regime you are given.

    • Replies to David Phillip-Pritchard>

      Comment by Jonathan Jones posted on

      Thank you for the comment, David. I’m very sorry to hear about your issues with your back but also pleased that, with the support of your managers, you have so successfully managed it at work. It’s important that all of us can discuss any health and well-being issues with our managers and access the support we need.