April/May 2018 (vol. 14/6)

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Survey: Long-term sickness absence: a biopsychosocial survey, part 1

Part 1: establishing the ‘real’ causes of long-term sickness absence and its contribution to lost working time


The At Work Partnership and The Work Foundation have carried out a major survey of OH professionals regarding the scale and management of long-term sickness absence in the UK. It is believed to be the first survey to consider fully the biopsychosocial factors involved in triggering, prolonging and managing long-term absence as reported by OH professionals. This is part one of a two-part series.

Long-term sickness absence (LTSA) is consistently cited as either the first or second biggest concern for occupational health (OH) nurses and physicians, with 44% of respondents to surveys by this journal in 20111 and 20152 saying it was one of the three biggest priorities for their professional practice. LTSA is costly to employers and can be a considerable burden on individuals, in some cases leading to permanent incapacity or medical retirement.  Effective management of LTSA should be a vital component in the efficient running of a business and it is an area where OH professionals can add demonstrable value to the organisation.

This research was undertaken to provide robust data on the real causes, and the biopsychosocial drivers, of long-term absence, as well as the barriers to, and facilitators of, return to work. This information is needed to inform policy and help employers implement strategies to address the issue. The research also sought to examine whether or not strategies aimed at reducing LTSA were effective.

The main component of the research was a survey of OH professionals, designed to explore how the various biopsychosocial factors influenced sickness absence and return to work. It also explored the extent to which a condition reported to the employer through self-certification or on the fit note was the real reason for the absence.

The first of a two-part research report examines our current understanding of LTSA, a review of evidence, how organisations define and report absence, headline absence statistics, and the factors triggering, prolonging and resolving LTSA.

For further information, please see our press release about this survey.

Dr John Ballard is editor of Occupational Health [at Work]. Dr Zofia Bajorek and Helen Sheldon were researchers at The Work Foundation when they undertook this research.

Author: Ballard J, Bajorek Z, Sheldon H


Occupational Health at Work April/May 2018 (vol. 14/6) pp15-26

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