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Luger T, Maher CG, Rieger MA, et al. Work-break schedules for preventing musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders in healthy workers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jul 23;7:CD012886. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012886.pub2. (Systematic review)
Abstract

BACKGROUND: Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are a group of musculoskeletal disorders that comprise one of the most common disorders related to occupational sick leave worldwide. Musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 21% to 28% of work absenteeism days in 2017/2018 in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. There are several interventions that may be effective in tackling the high prevalence of work-related musculoskeletal disorders among workers, such as physical, cognitive and organisational interventions. In this review, we will focus on work breaks as a measure of primary prevention, which are a type of organisational intervention.

OBJECTIVES: To compare the effectiveness of different work-break schedules for preventing work-related musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders in healthy workers, when compared to conventional or alternate work-break schedules.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO, SCOPUS, Web of Science, ClinicalTrials.gov and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform, to April/May 2019. In addition, we searched references of the included studies and of relevant literature reviews.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of work-break interventions for preventing work-related musculoskeletal symptoms and disorders among workers. The studies were eligible for inclusion when intervening on work-break frequency, duration and/or type, compared to conventional or an alternate work-break intervention. We included only those studies in which the investigated population included healthy, adult workers, who were free of musculoskeletal complaints during study enrolment, without restrictions to sex or occupation. The primary outcomes were newly diagnosed musculoskeletal disorders, self-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort or fatigue, and productivity or work performance. We considered workload changes as secondary outcomes.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently screened titles, abstracts and full texts for study eligibility, extracted data and assessed risk of bias. We contacted authors for additional study data where required. We performed meta-analyses, where possible, and we assessed the overall quality of the evidence for each outcome of each comparison using the five GRADE considerations.

MAIN RESULTS: We included six studies (373 workers), four parallel RCTs, one cross-over RCT, and one combined parallel plus cross-over RCT. At least 295 of the employees were female and at least 39 male; for the remaining 39 employees, the sex was not specified in the study trial. The studies investigated different work-break frequencies (five studies) and different work-break types (two studies). None of the studies investigated different work-break durations. We judged all studies to have a high risk of bias. The quality of the evidence for the primary outcomes of self-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort and fatigue was low; the quality of the evidence for the primary outcomes of productivity and work performance was very low. The studies were executed in Europe or Northern America, with none from low- to middle-income countries. One study could not be included in the data analyses, because no detailed results have been reported.Changes in the frequency of work breaksThere is low-quality evidence that additional work breaks may not have a considerable effect on musculoskeletal pain, discomfort or fatigue, when compared with no additional work breaks (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.08; 95% CI -0.35 to 0.18; three studies; 225 participants). Additional breaks may not have a positive effect on productivity or work performance, when compared with no additional work breaks (SMD -0.07; 95% CI -0.33 to 0.19; three studies; 225 participants; very low-quality evidence).We found low-quality evidence that additional work breaks may not have a considerable effect on participant-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort or fatigue (MD 1.80 on a 100-mm VAS scale; 95% CI -41.07 to 64.37; one study; 15 participants), when compared to work breaks as needed (i.e. microbreaks taken at own discretion). There is very low-quality evidence that additional work breaks may have a positive effect on productivity or work performance, when compared to work breaks as needed (MD 542.5 number of words typed per 3-hour recording session; 95% CI 177.22 to 907.78; one study; 15 participants).Additional higher frequency work breaks may not have a considerable effect on participant-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort or fatigue (MD 11.65 on a 100-mm VAS scale; 95% CI -41.07 to 64.37; one study; 10 participants; low-quality evidence), when compared to additional lower frequency work breaks. We found very low-quality evidence that additional higher frequency work breaks may not have a considerable effect on productivity or work performance (MD -83.00 number of words typed per 3-hour recording session; 95% CI -305.27 to 139.27; one study; 10 participants), when compared to additional lower frequency work breaks.Changes in the duration of work breaksNo trials were identified that assessed the effect of different durations of work breaks.Changes in the type of work breakWe found low-quality evidence that active breaks may not have a considerable positive effect on participant-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort and fatigue (MD -0.17 on a 1-7 NRS scale; 95% CI -0.71 to 0.37; one study; 153 participants), when compared to passive work breaks.Relaxation work breaks may not have a considerable effect on participant-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort or fatigue, when compared to physical work breaks (MD 0.20 on a 1-7 NRS scale; 95% CI -0.43 to 0.82; one study; 97 participants; low-quality evidence).

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: We found low-quality evidence that different work-break frequencies may have no effect on participant-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort and fatigue. For productivity and work performance, evidence was of very low-quality that different work-break frequencies may have a positive effect. For different types of break, there may be no effect on participant-reported musculoskeletal pain, discomfort and fatigue according to low-quality evidence. Further high-quality studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of frequency, duration and type of work-break interventions among workers, if possible, with much higher sample sizes than the studies included in the current review. Furthermore, work-break interventions should be reconsidered, taking into account worker populations other than office workers, and taking into account the possibility of combining work-break intervention with other interventions such as ergonomic training or counselling, which may may possibly have an effect on musculoskeletal outcomes and work performance.

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