Back pain and mental ill health still the main reasons for workplace absence

workplace absenceBack pain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) remain the prime reason for long-term workplace absence (38%); with stress and mental-health disorders the main cause of absence for one in four companies. However, the results of the UK’s largest business survey on sickness absence published by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and Jelf Employee Benefits reveals that stress and mental illness is regarded as the most difficult form of absence to make workplace adjustments for, with almost a third of companies saying this is the case. Furthermore, a third of employers said that they do not have approaches for managing mental-health-related long-term absence. Just one in ten companies provides training for line managers in mental-health issues and only 2 percent of companies have an open mental-health disclosure policy, suggesting business matches society in finding it a difficult issue to address.

Commenting, Professor Sayeed Khan, Chief Medical Adviser at EEF said: “While overall absence levels remain low, there continues to be a marked difference between short- and long-term absence which is creeping up. Without a renewed effort to tackle its root causes it will continue to act as a drag on the economy and efforts to improve productivity and boost growth.

“Of particular concern is the gradual increase in stress and mental-health-related problems over the last 5 years with which GPs and employers are struggling to deal. As a society we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy. Whilst employers and GPs appear able to manage other causes of absence they must now be given the tools to deal with stress and mental-health issues in the same way.”

According to the survey, overall sickness absence remains low at 5.1 days (2.2%) with half of employees having zero absence. While overall absence levels remain low, however, there is a marked difference in long-term absence with two-fifths of companies reporting an increase, while only a fifth reported a decrease. This is the largest increase in five years, a period where long-term absence has been gradually increasing.

The survey also shows that employers’ approach to managing absence remains mixed. Encouragingly, the number of companies setting absence targets is increasing (a third have no target compared to two-fifths last year) and two-fifths can make workplace adjustments or provide training to manage long-term absence.

However, in contrast, almost three quarters of companies don’t measure the cost of sickness absence and 70 percent don’t measure the return on their investment for the health & well-being benefits they do offer.

According to survey, the new Fit for Work service will be critical in reducing long-term absence, especially MSD’s and mental health issues.