It’s a common story - a worker returns from annual leave and within the first couple of weeks of returning has an injury. So the question is why?
The reason is that taking a break from work through sickness or holiday can result in a decrease in work fitness. Or put another way – the worker has de-conditioned to the physical demands of their task. And where there is a mismatch between the capacity of the worker and the demands of the task the risk of injury increases.
The physical effects of rest or ‘de-loading’ is widely researched in athletes. The Australian Institute of Sport has recently released a white paper detailing the effects in athletes. Rest in this case is defined as any substantial reduction in training load, which can be due to injury, illness, tapering and planned breaks.
The human body is amazing with its ability to adapt. However, without regular loading it no longer needs to expend energy maintaining high levels of fitness, muscle mass, and tendon strength. Unfortunately, this de-conditioning process can occur so quickly that a rapid return to full training load can overwhelm the system and injuries can occur.
In examples provided in the paper, an athlete completing only 40% of their normal training load would require two and half weeks of graduated return to full training. The return is normal load is even more substantial if an employee is confined to bed rest for 2 weeks with 0% of their normal load, the AIS recommends 4.6 weeks to return to full training. Returning faster than this increases the risk of injury.
The most important aspect is that AIS recognized that safe high load training is actually protective from injury. It is usually spikes or large increases in load that can contribute to injuries.
Workers, who are often referred to as ‘industrial athletes,’ need to be viewed in a similar light to regular athletes. A break because of sickness or holiday will undoubtedly cause a decrease in work fitness. The longer the break the more graduated return to full duties may be required.
If you want to decrease the risk of injury in your workforce when your employees are having a break:
- Try and encourage them to keep physically active while away
- Avoid overloading at risk employees on their return
- Avoid spikes of load in the workplace where possible