Keeping Britain’s backbone in good health

Connect Health’s Clinical Lead for Occupational Health Services, Paul Shawcross, discusses how the Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector is feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and shares measures that can be introduced to keep teams in good musculoskeletal health whilst they’re busy supplying the nation.

The FMCG industry is being pushed to its limits, with many manufacturers reporting demand at an historic high, as a consequence of COVID-19.

One concern for FMCG employers during this time of strain, is the ability to keep staff healthy and happy, to meet the heightened requirements placed on teams. Here, Paul Shawcross, Clinical Lead in Occupational Health Services at Connect Health, provides advice on measures that can be introduced to keep teams in good musculoskeletal health whilst they’re busy supplying the nation.


While NHS staff are being clapped and supermarket workers being thanked in person for their efforts, those behind the scenes – the food packers and warehouse operatives which account for around 400,000 employees in the UK – are working tirelessly to make sure supermarket shelves are kept well stocked and Britain doesn’t go hungry.

These unsung heroes, who tend to work 12-hour shifts, are prone to musculoskeletal conditions – back, joint and upper limb pain, caused by long periods of standing and lots of repetition. Add to that the current pressure of increased demand, worry over contracting coronavirus and the removal of interaction with colleagues as a result of social distancing, and it’s likely these workers are feeling intense stress and strain.

We know that musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are the second leading cause of working days lost in the UK – accounting for 22% of sickness absence[1] and costing the nation an estimated £7 billion a year. So, at this time of national emergency, it has never been more important to keep staff in the best possible health, to avoid a surge in absenteeism and the knock-on implications of that.

For the past 30 years Connect Health has provided a holistic service tailored to our 100-plus occupational health physiotherapy service customers, covering prevention, assessment, rehabilitation and training. Here are some of our key learnings and advice, that can be immediately put into practice.


Make time for movement

Before, during and after their shifts, staff should be encouraged to move in a different way to how they have been during their working hours. If they have been static for long periods or continually leaning across a conveyor belt, something as simple as a few stretches or a walk around the block will help loosen off the muscles.

Our recommended five exercises for those working in food production, include:

  1. Standing trunk extensions. 3 Sets / 5 Reps / 2 sec hold.

Stand with your legs at hip width apart and straight. Place your hands on your hips. Lean your body backwards, trying to arch in the lower back as much as you can, lifting your chest up towards the ceiling. Try to avoid allowing your hips to swing too far forward. Hold this position before returning to the start position.

  1. Standing overhead side stretch 3 Sets / 5 Reps / 2 sec hold.

Stand with your arms above your head, keeping them close to your ears. Hold your hands together as you pull your shoulder blades down and back. Holding this position, lean to one side, feeling the stretch down the other side of your torso. 5 to each side.

  1. Strong spine squats. 3 Sets / 10 Reps.

Maintain a strong core.  Tilt your hips forward and bend at the knees. Bring your arms forward as you squat down.

  1. Forward bend to squat to overhead reach to stand. 3 Sets / 8 Reps / 1 sec hold.

Stand up straight with your legs slightly wider than hip width. Tighten your abdominal and buttock muscles and keep your back straight throughout. With your legs straight, push your hips back behind you and lean your body forward, reaching towards your toes with your hands. Keeping your gaze ahead, bend your knees, lowering down into a squat. Once you have reached your maximum depth, raise your arms up, relaxing your shoulder blades back and down. Keep your hands in this position as you stand back up. Finally, lower your hands back down to your sides. Repeat this movement, keeping your core muscles strong throughout.

  1. Press up plus against wall. 3 Sets / 8 Reps.

Stand up straight facing a wall. Place your hands onto the wall around shoulder height but slightly wider. Your fingers should point directly up to the ceiling. Maintain a straight line from the top of your head to your heels. You should feel your abdominal, buttock and thigh muscles tighten to help control this. Drive the heels of your hands into the wall, flattening your shoulder blades against your back. Your neck should remain long to ensure you do not hunch your shoulders. Next, bend your elbows out to the side, pivoting on the balls of your feet as you move your body in one straight line in towards the wall. Keep your abdominal, buttock and thigh muscles strong throughout. Straighten your arms out again, lifting your body away from the wall. As you straighten, think about driving the heels of your hands into the wall again to flatten your shoulder blades against your back.

Encouraging more energetic and structured exercise when staff get home will also reap huge benefits and there are plenty of great free training resources to tap into, such as the NHS’ fitness studio and Sport England’s ‘Stay in, work out’, perfect for those who are short of time and miss getting to the gym. Exercise naturally boosts endorphins, which increase happiness, enjoyment, and interest levels – all of which are important for mental and physical health and productivity.


Try micro breaks and rotation

For team members who have particularly repetitive roles, which leads to pressure on key areas of their body, the introduction of rotation and micro breaks are particularly effective.

In practice, this means rotating workers onto other lines to reduce repetition and opting for more breaks throughout the day, which are shorter versus longer and less frequent. That means the same amount of working hours are recorded – great for the managers who have quotas to fill, and for the workers who have more breaks in which to stretch out and loosen off their limbs, as well as get some fresh air and destress.

In addition to boosting physical and mental health, we’ve observed how rotations and micro breaks have led to staff being much more alert – essential for those quality checking on the frontline.

This was hugely beneficial for one of our customers, who developed a popular sandwich that led to increased demand and then a surge in notable occupational health risks, including increased physical workload and stress.  Two years after introducing changes, which included tailored-made equipment we helped devise, there have been no reported aches or pains across their workforce and the company has enjoyed efficiency savings of nearly £40,000.


Encourage team-led exercising

As with any new introductions, showing they’re team-led rather than a demand from the top, tends to be better received. We found this to work well, when encouraging exercising during break times, particularly strength training which is proven to help reduce MSD amongst workers who have physically demanding roles[2].

Those companies who empowered their employees to take the reins and run an exercise session, before passing the baton on to one of their colleagues, have had the best success. Plus, it’s a really simple measure to implement.

Start by finding a member of the workforce to kick things off. Ideally, this needs to be someone who isn’t afraid to be a little vivacious and perhaps already has an interest in sport and exercise. They are then tasked with hosting a session, during a breaktime, that gets people moving and those endorphins pumping.

With social distancing a very real concern at the moment, this could be a gentle walk around the site, or some stretches outside, a safe distance apart.

One example of an initiative that motivated staff at all levels to get healthy, was ‘Beat the Boss’ which we ran on behalf of our customer, Pladis, one of the World’s leading snacking companies.

We devised a fun competition between employees and bosses – pitting their efforts against each other.  The range of tests included grip strength, squats, leg balances and many more, with each specifically designed to work the areas generally affected by MSD. Managers did the tests and their scores were circulated to their teams to beat.

For the day shift workers, we set up a pop-up gym over a couple of afternoons, while for the night shift workers, we focused on healthy eating, alcohol intake as well as the ‘Beat the Boss’ tests. Although uptake was slow at the start, it wasn’t long before everyone wanted to get involved.


Show your team they’re valued

While it’s easy to get lost in the day job, especially at times of increased pressure like now, it is essential to show your team they’re important and integral to getting the job done.

We’ve seen first-hand how valuable simply thanking and appreciating staff can be – people like to feel their worth and to know they are making a difference, particularly when their role is fast paced, stressful and physically demanding. Those who aren’t recognised can quickly feel neglected and unappreciated, resulting in a rise in absenteeism and work-related illness.

The knock-on impact of this can be catastrophic for those finding themselves short-staffed and then looking to recruit and upskill new team members, amid the extreme circumstances we’re facing.

Small measures like workforce-wide announcements, money-off vouchers and team member of the week initiatives, all help boost staff morale without costing a fortune.



[1] Public Health England
[2] A Systematic Review of Workplace Interventions to Rehabilitate MSD Among Employees in Physical Demanding Work, 2020