How to reduce sickness absence

Reducing sickness absence is less challenging than it may first appear. Here’s how to tackle it.

Health and work are intrinsically linked. Worklessness due to ill health has huge, adverse effects on individuals, businesses and the public sector, and consequently the economy as a whole. It is an area of policy where England is falling behind other countries, so much so that the annual cost of absence to the UK economy is £17 billion, according to the 2012 CBI Absence survey, published in May 2012.

The economy’s recovery will be slowed by the burden of incapacity benefits and employers that have a weakened pool of staff, but there is evidence that supportive employers that treat their employees well and are prepared to be flexible have reduced staff turnover and increased workplace productivity.

Reducing sickness absence is less challenging than it may first appear, and many enlightened employers have adopted effective strategies. But an ageing population means a greater prevalence of chronic illness will affect those in work as well as those with caring responsibilities. Employers will need to reconsider their approach to managing absence because more employees will have some form of long-term condition or be caring for someone who does.

Common health complaints

Musculoskeletal disorders and mental illness are the most common health reasons for staff taking time off. Some 80% of adults will suffer from back pain at some time in their working lives, and the World Health Organisation says that, by 2020, depression will be the second most common cause of disability in the world. So what can employers do to minimise sickness absence?

It is normal for the work environment to change as people’s careers progress. This may entail physical changes to the work environment, but may also include changes to the terms and conditions of employment. Introducing flexible working can be key to supporting employees’ health and wellbeing as they get older. Other important measures include job design and skills analysis, coaching and mentoring. This helps place people in the right job, which is essential to mental health. Mentoring and other support are often crucial to reducing stress.

Employers aiming to identify and support staff with mental illnesses should look to the root cause, which in the workplace is often stress. A decline in mental wellbeing can also be linked with heavy drinking. Although someone who regularly drinks over the recommended limit may not show overt physical or mental signs, the quality of their work may drop, they may lack motivation or take more than average time off.

By being aware of these issues, employers can support staff and prevent them falling into costly periods of worklessness.

Innovative approaches

Of course, it is easier for larger employers to offer more flexible hours or new equipment, but there is no reason why a number of smaller organisations cannot link up with local health services or a larger local employer to develop innovative approaches.

A good example is Homerton Hospital in London, where the hospital board sanctioned a programme that enabled the whole workforce to engage in improving their own health. The board made the important connections between a healthy workforce, improvements in performance and the quality of patient care, and staff felt more connected.

As Homerton Hospital has shown, interventions do not have to be costly, and a little innovative thinking goes a long way. It makes little economic sense for employers trying to tackle sickness absence to have anything other than a healthy, happy workforce that feels valued.


  • Musculoskeletal disorders and mental illness are major causes of absence.
  • Reducing sickness absence is less challenging than it may appear.
  • Ensuring staff are in the right job is key.

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Gail Beer is consultant director at 2020Health