Managing musculoskeletal conditions at work (Part 2) — 6 steps to a job change

Lauren Finestone

For some people with back pain or other musculoskeletal conditions, self-management may mean finding a different job. An occupational rehabilitation consultant sets out 6 steps to successfully navigate a change in a career path.

In an online event hosted by Musculoskeletal Australia in 2022, experts offered some tips, strategies and resources for people who are working and dealing with back pain or other musculoskeletal conditions. 

We’ve looked look at their suggestions for managing symptoms at work.

In this article, Frank Imbesi, a senior occupational rehabilitation consultant and Managing Director at AMS Consulting has some advice for people who are reconsidering their work and career options, or for those who help people manage their condition.

Construction worker thinking about career options

Many people feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start when they are faced with a potential change in their career. But Imbesi says there are opportunities and pathways forward, and that success can be achieved by following these 5 steps:

Step 1

The first step is for the person to understand what they can do (their ‘tolerances’) and can’t do, and to have a reliable and tested pacing and activity schedule. 

They can test and improve those tolerances on a non-work environment such as at home or in social or recreational activities. This will help when the time comes to move into to a new work-related setting.

For example, if someone has a sedentary job where they struggle with sitting for long, they can start to train themselves to gradually stand for longer periods. They can pay attention to how much they can tolerate different postures, activities and loads and how often, because they will help down the track as they start to look at what suitable employment options may look like for them.

Step 2

The next step is to examine what education, training and experience they’ve had — including all the short courses and life experiences (including skills obtained through sports, hobbies and other interests) that have given them skills that can be successfully transferred to another job role.

Imbesi encourages people to be honest with themselves and to identify their strengths and well-developed skills. A future career path that is aligned with their strengths and interests can bring joy and energy to a job. Imbesi suggests that resources like the VAR strengths profile can help to identify your strengths.

Step 3

The next step is to start exploring some suitable employment options by mapping these skills, strengths and interests to job roles that factor in the person’s musculoskeletal condition, limitations and tolerances. 

He recommends using resources like the self-directed search, which helps map skills, experience and preferences to different types employment and can sometimes give you ideas for roles you hadn’t thought about. 

Then the person can shortlist the job options and explore those jobs more deeply. This involves thinking about whether they can match up the inherent requirements of the job with what they now know about what they can and can’t do. 

Step 4

The next step is to prepare for the jobs that are suitable — physically and psychologically. For example, if you know that a job involves activities or postures that are not ones you’ve been focusing on in your rehabilitation or activity plan, you can start to schedule those into your routine to improve your functional abilities.

Psychological preparation means thinking about how you’ll approach and manage elements of that role, implement your plan and be able to still stick to it. If we know what we're being faced with and we have the opportunity to plan for it we’re much more likely to find a way to deal with it.

Step 5

The final step is to secure the work. And that can be a daunting task. But Imbesi says there's probably never been a better time to be thinking about changing job roles because right now the labour market is quite favourable for people who are looking for work or looking to change employment.

He suggests first exploring the person’s own personal networks through family and friends. They're the ones who know them and they won’t have to prove their work ethic or integrity. They are also more likely to understand and accommodate their condition.

He also suggests ‘cold canvassing’ — accessing the hidden labour market. There are lots of jobs out there that aren't advertised. He encourages people not to be afraid to reach out to organisations to see if they have job roles on their shortlist. Often you can get lucky. 

There are also lots of online resources that can help people update their resume and write applications and cover letters. 

Step 6

If the person secures suitable employment with a new employer, do they disclose their musculoskeletal condition? And can they educate and coach that employer about their situation so they can work together to craft the role in a way that will lead to their success?.

Part 3 will look at legal rights. But Imbesi cautions people against trying to impress and prove to everybody that they can do the job, forgetting their pacing plan and moving back into a boom and bust cycle by overdoing things. 

He suggests sticking to the plan in the early stages and making sure the plan includes how to manage bad days at work. He says if the plan can be shared with the employer that will help make the role change sustainable. As the person gets to know the job, they can work with the employer to explore flexibility with duties, time periods and other options.

So living with a musculoskeletal condition doesn’t mean that a person can’t find job satisfaction. You can help someone use this 6-step approach to identify and get a job that fits their strengths, interests and limitations.

Published 14 February, 2023 | Updated 28 February, 2023