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Posted By Heather Ette, 20 August 2018
Updated: 20 August 2018

Establishing the ‘real’ causes of long-term sickness absence and its contribution to lost working time

Exclusive joint research from The At Work Partnership and the Work Foundation provides concrete evidence that the reason someone takes long-term sickness absence and remains off sick, isn’t just down to the diagnosis given on the fit note or sick certificate.

This biopsychosocial survey of long-term sickness absence, published in the journal Occupational Health at Work, demonstrates that while the initial diagnosis is relevant in triggering the initial absence other factors are often involved. For example ‘comorbid’ conditions – where an employee has a second health condition, such as depression, in addition to their main diagnosis, are important factors in triggering and prolonging absences. Importantly, ‘psychosocial’ factors – such as the employee believing their ill health is caused or made worse by work, poor support from the manager and disciplinary issues – are also important in triggering and prolonging the absence.

 The survey also shows that around 3.2% of working time is lost to sickness absence in respondents’ organisations (which were generally large employers in both the private and public sectors) – equivalent to 7.3 days per employee a year. Just under half (46%) of total lost working time due to sickness absence is from absences lasting 20 working days or more.

Stress and mental health were the most common reasons for long-term sickness absence referrals to occupational health, followed by combined musculoskeletal and stress/mental health conditions. Musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain were the third most common reason for long-term sickness absence referrals to OH.  

Only one-quarter of employees currently on long-term sick leave (at the time of the survey) had been absent with the same condition before.

Most long-term absences tended to resolve after two or three months; however, many respondents reported cases lasting 12 months or more. One respondent revealed that an employee had been off sick for eight years in their organisation.

Report co-author Dr John Ballard said: ‘The findings reported in our exclusive survey confirm that the causes of long-term sickness absence can be complex and that multiple medical and psychosocial issues need to be considered in its management.’


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