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Present or Productive? Being Strategic About Desk Discomfort

Every day at Bend + Mend, we’ll deal with two things: pain and work. We physiotherapists love trying to keep people at work and doing all the tasks they’re expected to do. But it strikes me that perhaps more attention should be directed to how well a person is able to do their job. Can they be productive when they’re not comfortable or in pain? So let’s give it some consideration here.

‘Presenteeism’ most often refers to staying at work despite illness or injury (it also has a second definition). For the kinds of musculoskeletal pain we see at Bend+Mend, presenteeism is commonplace.  A study of computer workers in The Netherlands (1) reported that only about one third of those who reported reduced productivity loss due to musculoskeletal symptoms actually took any time off. Meanwhile, a study from 2013 (2) demonstrated that many workers who stay at work when in pain report poor work performance. However, there was also an interesting subgroup of workers who were able to remain productive: those who possessed strong beliefs about their ability to function well in pain.

Chances are that if you’ve experienced mild or moderate pain at work, you’ve tried pushing on. I certainly have from time to time. When compared to the prospect of actually stopping work for the day (‘absenteeism’), pushing on is inherently more productive. This is clearly a complex situation with many factors beyond the scope of this blog – injury specifics, ergonomics, personal habits, HR, social considerations and so on – but at a basic level, let me say this;

There is scope for most of us to make shrewder decisions when dealing with pain at work.

Call it being strategic. The desire to push on can be strong. But surely it’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself: Is it really worth carrying on with pain or it is wise to arrange a break? What is the real cost of slower, distracted, uncomfortable, foggy-brained work? Could a short amount of rest now save me having to take time off later if this worsens?

At an even milder level, consider how often you have to deal with feeling tired or uncomfortable. Broadly speaking, there is a progression with desk-related complaints, from fatigue to discomfort to pain to lasting injury. Imagine you’re at work, you’ve been in the same position for ages trying to get something done. Fatigue is the norm and discomfort is well underway. Surely it’s logical at this stage to get up off your seat and give your back/neck/shoulders/arms the break they crave. Then come back to it refreshed, more comfortable and at a more productive part of the continuum.

It’s not easy but let’s all keep trying to be sensible about these things.

Blake and the team at Bend + Mend in Sydney’s CBD are available for pragmatic, no-nonsense services to improve health in your workplace. This includes ergonomic workstation assessments for individuals and groups.  All enquires are welcome via



1. Van den Heuvel et al (2007)Loss of productivity due to neck/shoulder symptoms and hand/arm symptoms: Results from the PROMO-Study. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 17(3): 370–382.

2. De Vries et al (2013) Self-reported work ability and work performance in workers with chronic nonspecific musculoskeletal pain. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 23(1):1-10

Blake van Koesveld

Blake graduated from the University of Sydney in 2003. He has worked in both Sydney and London and completed a Certificate in Spinal Manual Therapy in 2011. Blake has particular expertise with orthopaedic conditions and enjoys helping patients to weigh up their treatment options and with post-surgical rehabilitation. As a lifelong sports fan, Blake uses his knowledge of sports to customise rehabilitation for his athletic clients. After battling his way around the 2012 Edinburgh Marathon he has a deeper appreciation of the “foolish but fun” world of amateur endurance events.

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