Distraction of work beats doctors for back pain relief
Germany is strong enough to carry southern Europe on its back but stays home at the slightest twinge
“What is going on with the German back? While the French get excited about their livers, and the Brits obsess over their bowels, in Germany it is the spine that is grotesquely overpathologised.” Photographer: Brand X Pictures
Backache is common, hurts like hell and no one has the first idea how to cure it. Neither do they know what brings it on. It can be too much jogging. Or lifting something. Or sitting hunched over a computer all day. Or, as happened to me, it can result from standing on one foot trying to insert the other into a sock.
Given that the whole of Europe jogs, lifts things, sits slumped over desks and puts on socks, you might have expected the incidence of bad backs in Europe to be evenly spread. Possibly, at the margin, backs ought to be slightly healthier in richer countries where there are stricter rules on how to lift things, and where more gets spent on ergonomic office furniture.
Every year Germans throw 217 million sickies as a result of musculoskeletal disorders (which mainly means backache). In the UK the figure is 35 million days – which is a lot in absolute terms, even if it is nothing by comparison – while in Greece it is only a million. Even if you adjust for the size of the workforce, the gap is still enormous – the average German worker takes a whole week off work every year, compared with a day in the UK, and barely an hour in Greece.
It strikes me as vaguely comic that the country that is strong enough to carry the whole of southern Europe on its back stays home at the slightest twinge while the country with the feeblest economy in the EU shows a lot of backbone when it comes to backache.
Partly it is a difference in the benefit systems: in Germany you go on getting handsomely paid when your back plays up. But benefits don’t account for the full extent of the difference. Neither does job satisfaction. Normally how much people like or loathe their work determines how often they phone in sick. But that would suggest that people would be absent less in Germany, where job satisfaction is fairly high, at least compared with Greece.
So what is going on with the German back? While the French get excited about their livers, and the Brits obsess over their bowels, in Germany it is the spine that is grotesquely overpathologised.