Overcoming back pain

Transport co-ordinator Pirjo Kaipainen and Managing Director Timo Lahti are full of praise for the work trial. It helped Pirjo return to work after a long sick leave in spring 2014. The work trial carried out at the workplace is one form of vocational rehabilitation.

Pirjo booked an appointment with the occupational health care service. The doctor examined her back and prescribed painkillers and a week of sick leave. As her condition only worsened, Pirjo returned to the doctor and was prescribed more sick leave, one week at a time. Even if she took stronger painkillers, she felt worse.

“I ended up staying at home with wool socks in my feet and tears in my eyes. The pain wouldn’t go away even if I popped strong painkillers like they were candy,” says Pirjo, thinking back to those painful summer months.






Treatment methods discovered bit by bit

When the X-rays didn’t reveal the cause of her pain, Pirjo consulted a physiatrist, who sent her to have an MRI. The root of her severe neurological pain turned out to be a disc prolapse, better known as a lumbar herniated disc.

Pirjo started rehabilitation on her own, following the instructions provided by professionals. Physiotherapy was not much help. Twice a week, Pirjo had a spinal relaxation treatment. When that failed to help, the physiatrist referred Pirjo to an orthopedic surgeon specialising in bone and orthopedic diseases. The surgeon made the decision to operate. Even though she could have just waited for the operation without doing anything, Pirjo added two aquajogging classes, which the physiotherapist had recommended, to her weekly programme to maintain her muscular fitness. That brought her some relief. Acupuncture also helped.

“Then I noticed that I didn’t have to check my watch to see when I can take the next painkiller. I also started to sleep better,” Pirjo recalls.

She began to question the operation and took the matter up with her surgeon, who suggested that they monitor the situation and removed Pirjo from the operation queue. Her painful condition finally improved bit by bit through pain management medication and by taking care of her muscular fitness. Later, Pirjo also took up physiopilates once a week.


Decision on a work trial arrived quickly

In the small unit of five employees, a long sick leave was a problem, despite Pirjo’s colleagues stepping up to the plate for her. It was difficult to find someone new to replace Pirjo in her demanding position.

“The situation caught us by surprise, because we had never dealt with a long period of sick leave before,” recalls Managing Director Timo Lahti.

In November 2013, after having been ill for four months and rehabilitating herself throughout that time, Pirjo returned to the occupational physician. Even though her back was better, it still wasn’t 100 per cent. Returning to work after her sick leave and annual leave made her very worried.

“When the occupational physician mentioned a work trial, I began looking into it myself. I called Ilmarinen’s expert, who gave me clear instructions there and then and advised me to send in an application.”

The occupational physician wrote a statement to attach to the application. The decision arrived in two weeks.

“That was a huge relief,” says Pirjo, who has been working for 32 years for the same employer, continually repeating: “I am so grateful for this opportunity!”


Towards a normal work day

Once Pirjo returned to work in February 2014, she was just as nervous as her colleagues were during that first week.

“In the beginning I was so tense that my shoulders got cramped,” recalls Pirjo.

The workplace and the tasks were familiar, but only time would tell whether her back could take the strain.

“Sitting at home on an office chair for seven hours a day would not have been a good indication of how I would manage once back at the office. Busy schedules and stress make pain worse,” Pirjo points out.

Her return was a concern for Timo, too. He didn’t want a trusted employee to come back to work ill and end up on a new round of sick leave. Pirjo needed to recover fully: the skills of a seasoned professional are extremely valuable to a small company. Tacit knowledge and well-practiced routines ensure that work gets done smoothly.

“It is easier to work when you know how the other person operates,” sums up Timo, who has worked with Pirjo for over 30 years.

Timo admits that he initially had doubts about the work trial for not knowing anything about it. He was positively surprised. Pirjo started working four hours a day for a month, then six hours a day for a month. After that, she began working normal hours.


Employer pleased with the work trial

“The beginning was tentative on both sides. We were all anxious to see how Pirjo’s back would react and what tasks she could perform. No one knew if she would be able to continue in her previous tasks,” Timo says.

He points out that a work trial is a risk-free way for an employer to test an employee’s work capacity after a long sick leave. The impacts of the working conditions and pressure at work can only be assessed at the workplace. The work trial provides a means for this.

“If an employee takes up full-time work right after a long illness, this can lead to a vicious cycle of sick leave and work periods. It puts tremendous mental and financial stress not only on the employee but also on the employer,” Timo points out.

Timo warmly recommends work trials.

“In the current economic situation, conscientious employees may push themselves too hard and return to work too early for fear of losing their job. That is in nobody’s interest,” he says.

Timo emphasises the importance of a seamless exchange of information between occupational health care, the insurance company and the employee. The statement issued by the occupational health care service plays a big role. The insurance company, for its part, makes it financially possible for the employer and the employee to handle returning to work after an illness with care and compassion.

Text: Tuulevi Aschan