Back to top

Tracking work productivity of Australians living with MS

13 September 2021
  • There is increasing concern about the ability of workers to remain productive in the workforce as they begin to age or have chronic conditions.
  • MS can result in reduced work productivity, which can have a significant impact on the individual, their family and the economy.
  • While reduced work productivity due to MS has been identified previously, little is known about how this performs over time.
  • Australian researchers supported by MS Research Australia have used Australian MS Longitudinal Study participant data to identify how work productivity tracks over time for different subgroups of people with MS and the possible influencing factors.

How does living with MS impact employment and work productivity?

Being employed has many benefits beyond the financial aspect. It can improve quality of life, contributing to a person’s self-worth, independence and belonging, and provides a means of social interaction. In fact, the MS International Federation ranks employment as one of their seven principles to improve quality of life for people living with MS.

Studies over the years have shown that a lower education level, older age, more severe MS symptoms, severe MS disease course, disability, and comorbidities (medical conditions that occur simultaneously with another disease) have been linked with fewer working hours and lower employment rates in people living with MS. However, recent studies have shown that employment rates have improved for Australians living with MS, increasing from 48.8% in 2010 to 57.8% in 2013, which is most likely due to the availability of effective disease modifying therapies. This suggests that there are more people living with MS in the workforce, and potentially the effects of MS on work productivity in Australia may now be more prominent. Work productivity loss in people living with MS is high, with pain and sensory symptoms, fatigue and cognitive symptoms, difficulties with walking and balance as well as other symptoms being linked to work productivity loss. Understanding in greater detail work productivity and how it changes over time in people living with MS, may lead to the development of new interventions to help people living with MS navigate the factors impacting their work.

What did the researchers investigate?

Published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, Australian researchers surveyed people with MS within the MS Research Australia-supported Australian MS Longitudinal Study (AMSLS) from 2015 to 2019 to identify subgroups with distinct paths of work productivity and the influencing factors of these paths. The AMSLS is a research platform consisting of a registry of Australians living with MS and their self-reported data, to enhance our understanding of MS and help provide better support and services to people living with MS.

What did the researchers find?

Using the AMSLS data, the researchers were able to model work productivity paths in a population of Australians living with MS. They identified three distinct work productivity paths, which they named:

  • ‘Moderately reduced’ (average work productivity level of 47.6%),
  • ‘Mildly reduced’ (average work productivity level of 86.3%),
  • ‘Full’ (average work productivity level of 99.7%)

These three distinct work productivity paths were based on the Work Productivity and Activity Impairment questionnaire, which has been validated and applied in several chronic diseases. Of the participants, 17% reported moderately reduced work productivity, 46.7% had mildly reduced work productivity and 36.3% had full work productivity. The researchers found that each group had stable patterns of productivity over time, with no significant deterioration or improvement, demonstrating that people living with MS maintained the same work productivity over a period of four years.

The researchers also found that accumulation of disability, MS symptom severity (particularly cognitive, pain, sensory, fatigue and spasticity problems) and education level were the main factors that influenced work productivity paths. Interestingly, they found that people with a higher education level had a higher risk of reduced work productivity. The reasons for this are not clear, but the researchers believed that the effects of symptoms such as pain, fatigue and cognition may be heightened in this subgroup in positions where the work demands may not be conducive to reduced function.

What was concluded from this study?

The study found three work productivity paths of a representative sample of Australians living with MS that showed little deterioration over time. Lower work productivity in people living with MS was largely linked to higher levels of disability, more severe MS symptoms and higher education levels.

Mr Barnabas Bessing, who led this study along with Associate Professor Ingrid van der Mei, says that “these findings provide an opportunity to profile people living with MS who may be at risk of work productivity loss for tailored interventions to reduce work limitations and prevent job losses.”

Interventions that focus on minimising the impact of MS symptoms could benefit people who are at risk of reduced work productivity. These interventions will also encourage them to remain in the workforce, so that the benefits of employment may be achieved. In addition to the financial benefits, participation in the workforce enhances self-esteem and social inclusion, which can be important contributors to the overall wellbeing of people living with MS.