Sickness absence is a headache for UK employers, with costs estimated at 11bn a year and around three-quarters of a million employees off work with long-term sickness.
This is a problem that OH professionals and employers are seeking to address, but now a disability insurer is claiming that some traditional beliefs about illness and sickness absence are unfounded.
According to Unum Provident's chief medical officer, Dr Michael O'Donnell, the company's research shows that the pre-existence of certain illnesses, behaviour and circumstances are far more predictive of future work absence than previously thought - and stress is one of the conditions it considers suspect.
"If a person has a history of frequent consultations with their doctor for anxiety, stress, depression, dizziness or breathlessness, their chances of taking long-term time off work for health reasons increases.
"In fact, a history of such problems may be a more important predictor of long-term incapacity than a history of actual definable diseases, such as heart problems. This should not be surprising, as many studies show that disabled people give better attendance at work than their non-disabled colleagues."
The study found that a history of depression or subjective disorders – where there is no identifiable disease process to cause the health problem – appears to pre-date a significant proportion of sickness insurance claims for medically unexplained symptoms. A history of poor attendance at work is also highly predictive of future absence, according to UnumProvident.
But Lawrence Waterman, president elect of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, is unimpressed by this interpretation. "Employers are already finding it hard enough to recruit people with the talent they need; it's going to be even more difficult if they start to exclude people presenting particular problems," he said.
"What OH and employers need to do is help people make the best contribution they can at work despite their difficulties. If people find they have clear goals at work, co-operative colleagues and support from their line manager, it might well be a place they rush to, to escape problems causing them stress outside the workplace."
"Nobody is perfect and employers are not employing people who are always 100 per cent mentally and physically fit. Our view is that employers must take people as they are, and that OH and health and safety profe