Subjective complaints are biggest cause of sickness absence

More than two-thirds of UK workers on long-term sick leave are suffering from complaints that are considered subjective and difficult to diagnose, research shows.

A survey of 600 companies, by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, reveals that 39% of long-term sickness absence is now due to musculoskeletal problems, such as back pain, while 30% is due to stress.

“It is worrying that such a high proportion of employee sickness absence is now due to largely subjective causes,” said Christine Owen, head of health management consulting at Mercer.

“Musculoskeletal problems and stress are often emotive, sensitive and difficult to diagnose, so they are frequently assigned to the ‘too difficult tray’. The key is effective managerial and clinical intervention, and the earlier the better,” she added.

The survey also reveals that four in 10 employers do not have an occupational health service, even though more than half of these respondents believe that employee absence is a problem.

Of those that do use occupational health services, 40% now spend more than £25,000 a year, with 25% paying out more than £100,000, while some respondents spend as much as £500,000 a year on occupational health services.

“Companies that invest in well-targeted and effective occupational health services generally experience much lower sickness absence costs,” said Owen. “The savings can be up to five or six times the amount spent on occupational health.”

 

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