In 2017 an estimated 131.2 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK. That works out to be the equivalent of 4.1 days per worker.

The most common reason for workplace absence was minor illnesses, like coughs and colds, which accounted for around 34.3 million days lost. This was followed by musculoskeletal problems, which accounted for 28.2 million days. Mental health problems, such as stress, depression, and anxiety, accounted for 14.3 million days lost.

According to a report commissioned by the Centre of Economic and Business Research, workplace absence is costing the UK economy £18 billion a year in lost productivity.

The problem of presenteeism

When we just look at the amount of days lost it is easy to focus on trying to raise productivity and save money by simply lowering the number of sick days taken.

The problem with this is that it tends to lead to inappropriate behavior, such as encouraging workers to come into work even if they are ill and being suspicious of people calling in sick. This not only aggravates stress and makes workers feel undervalued, but it causes longer recovery times and means that germs are likely to spread throughout the workplace. Also, sick workers are not productive workers and can sometimes make costly mistakes.

Presenteeism, people coming into work when they are unwell, is becoming more common. In a survey carried out by the CIPD in 2018 of over 1000 HR professionals, 86% of respondents said that they had seen cases of presenteeism in the past 12 months, an increase of 11% since 2016. Only a quarter said that their organisation had done anything to discourage employees from coming into work sick.

The health and wellbeing solution

So, what is the solution? The best way for businesses to try to lower absence rates and raise productivity is for them to identify the causes of absence within their workplace and then put in place health and wellbeing programmes that will help to tackle the underlying issues. In doing so, you can prevent the problem rather than just trying to treat the symptoms.

This tactic has proven results. Glasgow City Council estimated a saving of £4.5 million in the first year of a combined initiative to tackle absence, musculoskeletal disorders and stress.

According to research done by Business in the Community in 2013, FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10 per cent.

As the absence statistics mentioned above show, two of the most common causes of workplace absence in the UK are musculoskeletal disorders and mental health problems, and there are simple, cost-effective things that you can do to prevent these from becoming an issue and to deal with them when they do.

How to tackle musculoskeletal disorders

To prevent musculoskeletal disorders and deal with them when they arise, you can:

  • Carry out DSE assessments to identify any areas of risk and make sure that all of your employees workstations are set up properly
  • Provide manual handling training to teach people how to lift and carry heavy loads properly
  • Encourage your employees to be more active at work by installing sit/stand desks, encouraging employees to take regular breaks in which they do some easy stretches and exercises, and having walking meetings
  • Encourage employees to report any early signs of musculoskeletal problems, such as discomfort, pain, or fatigue, as soon as possible
  • Give employees easy access to a physiotherapist.

How to tackle mental ill health

Like with musculoskeletal problems, it is important to think about strategies that will prevent employees from feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, and that will enable them to receive support quickly when they raise concerns so that they don’t develop a more serious problem.

Surveys have shown, however, that one in five people feel that they couldn’t tell their boss if they were feeling overly stressed at work and less than half of people diagnosed with a mental health problem have told their manager.

This means that an important part of tackling mental ill health in the workplace is creating a culture that encourages staff to be open about their mental health by making it clear that mental health problems will lead to support, not discrimination.

Some positive things that you can do to tackle mental ill health in your workplace are:

  • Promote open discussion of mental health amongst leaders in the company
  • Encourage employees to do things that support good mental health, such as social activities, exercise, meditation, and eating healthily
  • Encourage staff to take lunch breaks, work sensible hours and take their full amount of annual leave. Have leaders in the company role model these positive behaviours
  • Offer flexible working to help employees achieve a good work/life balance
  • Manage organisational changes in a way that involves and listens to staff
  • Communicate that mental health will be dealt with in the same way as physical health so that employees feel that if they are open this will be met with support
  • Have clear mental health policies and strategies in place so that when employees are experiencing mental health problems, they can get the support they need straight away. Include details of these in induction training
  • Have regular one-on-one meetings between managers and staff members in which managers check in on how employees are getting on and employees are encouraged to share anything that might be causing them stress, whether this is a work issue or something at home
  • Train managers and volunteers in mental health first aid and stress management so that there are approachable people who can recognise the signs and give support.

If someone is having mental health problems:

  • Listen to their needs and respond flexibly. Everyone’s experience of mental health is different, so treat the person, not the problem
  • Involve the employee in finding a solution as they will tend to know what support they need. This will help employees to feel trusted and give a sense of supported empowerment
  • If they need time off to recover, maintain open communication with them throughout their sickness absence. Agree the frequency and means of contact early on
  • When they are ready to return to work, arrange a meeting to catch up and come up with a practical, written return-to-work plan that outlines what adjustments and on-going support they feel they need.

How to get help tackling absence in your workplace

There are lots of ways that Amalgamate can help you to tackle absence in your workplace. We can analyse your absence statistics to understand the causes of absence within your workplace and help you to develop a health and wellbeing programme aimed at preventing these issues and dealing with them quickly when they arise.

To help you tackle musculoskeletal disorders, we can provide DSE assessments, manual handling training and develop campaigns to help your employees stay active in the workplace.

To improve mental health in your workplace, we can help you to create mental health policies and strategies, provide training for company leaders and managers on stress management, and arrange face-to-face or telephone consultations with clinical psychologists for any employees who have raised concerns about their mental health.

For more information, call us on +44 (0)141 244 0181 or email