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Australia has a pain problem

Australians are good at many things. We punch well above our weight in sport (go Barty!). We invented the pacemaker. We invented WIFI. Most impressive of all… we invented the HillsHoist!

But there’s one claim to fame we should not be proud of. Australia leads the world in pain.

Research shows that 68%¹ of Australians experience aches and pains, weekly. That’s right, every single week. That’s 17.5 million people! If that wasn’t upsetting enough, 2/3rds² of us are simply trying to ignore it, rather than resolve it. Hello wine, pain killers and rest.

It may surprise you, but when it comes to population health, pain beats obesity (31%), and anxiety (40%) by a mile. Thank goodness it’s not a competition.

While we’re good at supporting mental health (we had our first Mental Health Awareness week back in 1985), pain isn’t on the radar for many employers. When we spend so much time talking about mental health, why do we ignore the fact we’re all hurting?

This oversight is especially odd when we consider the overlap with pain and mental health. Those in chronic pain are 3x³ more likely to experience anxiety and depression, while 44%⁴ of opioid use in Australia is associated with general pain relief. The pain problem is about more than sore muscles.

“Hurting bodies and suffering minds often require the same treatment.” - Harvard Health

So why isn’t pain a workplace conversation, the way mental health is? It’s not because it isn’t affecting the bottom line. A Deloitte report from 2019 showed the cost of lost productivity from chronic pain was $48B, per year. It’s also not because it’s hard to imagine… the majority of people reading this will have a pain they wish they didn’t!

Domino effect: Dominoes falling over

The real reason employers aren’t addressing pain is because we’re not really sure what to do about it. The options in the past have been less than exciting… expensive ergonomic consultants flogging overpriced office equipment, safety consultants that pop in once a year, EAP’s with 2% engagement rates.

Proactive spend has traditionally focused on fitness and wellness initiatives. From popular offerings like at-desk massages, to truly terrible injury promoting activities like corporate bootcamps, it’s been a wishy-washy space for a long time.

And so I bear no grudge to any Safety & HR professionals who are weary of asking for budget for initiatives that don’t work. I reckon I’d feel exactly the same way. However, the foibles of the past don’t mean there isn’t a huge opportunity in front of us.


An employee centered solution:

To approach the workplace injury (MSD) problem as an employer, it helps to empathise with employees. When we put ourselves in their shoes, it becomes easier to understand why we have such an issue with pain, and why injury reduction has been so challenging.

For the majority of non-traumatic workplace injuries, there will be weeks or months of on-again, off-again discomfort that has gone unaddressed. This is largely because when an employee experiences pain, they have to ask themselves a difficult question:

A Cartoon hand holds a mobile phone, the screen says "Your upcoming appointment: Confirm / Cancel". The thumb hovers over cancel button.

“Is my pain worth spending $100, for a service I have to wait 3 days for, that may or may not help? Could I get the time off work to go? Should I be spending the money on school fees, power bills or savings instead? Maybe I should wait to see if my pain goes away on its own?”.

An even more difficult question comes into play when it comes to reporting: ‘Is my pain serious enough to report to my manager?’.

For contract and agency workers, it’s a whole other kettle of fish. They have to worry: ‘Could reporting my pain jeopardise me getting shifts in the future?’.

Outside of reporting the issue, or paying for an appointment, the only thing employees can do for themselves is Dr Google. Without affordable and trusted options, it makes perfect sense that employees avoid dealing with pain until it’s too late.

I call this period the incubation phase - where we have niggles that aren’t serious enough for an appointment (yet), but we aren’t confident to do something ourselves to try and fix it. We wait around and hope it goes away. It’s during this phase that presenteeism & absenteeism creep in, before the employer even knows there’s an issue brewing.

My belief is that we will only shift the needle on workplace injuries (MSD’s) when we begin to build for the employees’ wants and needs. Their wants and needs start when their pain starts, long before they make an appointment or tell a manager. This is where good workplace safety initiatives need to play, not just in return to work protocols.

Thankfully, advances in technology are starting to creep into the safety and medical industries. The result is that we can now scale health expertise in ways never before considered. Take the example on the right; a simple interface connecting employees to trusted support.

Click through the experience and you’ll see a completely new way of interacting with health professionals. Welcome to high touch, hyper personalised support, at scale. This is the new-guard when it comes to workplace health and safety. If you’re curious or in pain, send me a text, voice or video message at the end. I’m Matt and I’m here to help.

The moral of the story? The pain problem is huge… and to my mind we should be building awareness in much the same way as we have for mental health. Meanwhile the path to redemption for workplace health initiatives is to utilise technology to reduce the barriers of access to traditional care. Add to this a focus on the day to day experience of employees, and we’re in with a chance!

Given we are leading the world in pain, I’ve got faith that Australians can lead us out of pain too. Perhaps an RUOK SORE? Day is around the corner.

Happy moving,


This is the second article in the series Workplace Health and Safety: the good, the bad, the ugly. If you’ve enjoyed reading, you may also like Matt’s article in Startup Daily on innovations in telehealth. Subscribe here for first access to the next article.


¹Global Pain Index report (2015) ²Global Pain Index report (2015)

³Harvard Health: Depression and Pain (2017)

⁴Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: Opioid Harm in Australia (2011) Cost of Pain In Australia, Deloitte & Pain Australia (2019).

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