Sickness and Stress at Work

On 25th February this year the Office for National Statistics released their report of 2013's sickness absence across the UK labour market.  As with all such reports there are some details which need a bit more delving into, however, their key headlines were:

  •  131 million working days were lost to sickness absence in the UK in 2013 - the equivalent to 4.4 days per worker.

This is 47 million less than 1993, representing a 40% decrease, but is only 3% less than 2012.

  • The most common reason for sickness absence was Musculoskeletal problems, such as back and neck pain - 30.6 million days lost - followed by minor illnesses such as coughs and colds - 27.4 million days lost.
  • 15.2 million days lost were due to Stress, Depression and Anxiety.  This is a rise from 14.4 million in 2012 and 11.8 million in 2010.
Source: ONS - Report on Sickness Absence in the Labour Market

Looking at such large statistics like this it's hard to relate them to your own everyday experiences.  But what can we learn from the wider national trends that we might not necessarily spot within our own smaller businesses?

Bad Backs and Neck-aches

Musculoskeletal problems are wide ranging including backs, necks, upper limbs and more.  From a slight twinge as someone lifts a box of paper to a spasm which means an employee can't sit down or stand up properly, all of these can be effects of the working environment and with a number being preventable there are things employers can do to help.  And by helping employers are keeping their workforce moving, keeping them motivated, and keeping them productive.

A key step to helping protect your workforce, and your productivity levels, is consideration of the working environment and how your employees interact with it.  Have you considered the layout of your offices or workspaces for how close, or far away, employees are from windows or vents so are they in a draught or might they suffer from glare.

If you do have employees that are sat at desks all day a workstation assessment need not take a long time, but by going through the stages it can help with awareness for you and your employees.  The Health and Safety Executive website ( has a free one that can be downloaded and which guides the user through the key areas for consideration.

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

The rise in the numbers of days lost to stress, anxiety and depression does not appear to have come as a surprise to a number of commentators, and while the overall sickness absence figures have decreased year on year the trend in this area has continued to rise.

The term 'stress' can be quite divisive - some people using it as a by-word for feeling under pressure and others as a by-word for crippling anxiety.  Context - the environment someone is in and their own approach - is key to how it may affect an individual and what support they may require.  But just as employers can help work to prevent and support physical well-being, the same can be done with mental well-being.

So what can workplaces do?

There are a number of ways in which your company's attitudes to sickness absence can support employees, and they don't have to be costly measures. Arguably one of the most cost-effective methods of dealing with sickness absence is working to prevent the root causes, rather than just treating the symptoms.  While this is easier in some instances than in others, through the promotion across a business of a pragmatic approach to staff well-being employees' own knowledge and awareness can improve - rather than 1 person trying to combat it all, suddenly you've got a team keeping an eye out.   The effect of a cultural change and shift in perception of illnesses, especially relating to mental health, can also have an effect on how quickly and effectively symptoms or root causes are dealt with.  From encouraging staff to take short breaks away from their desks to starting up an office squash club if an organisation can demonstrate to its staff it takes their well-being seriously, they might start as well or be less self-conscious of their already doing so.

The bottom line is that while each individual does, of course, have a responsibility for their own well-being, if management lead by example they will see the benefits.

Places for Support:

Health and Safety Executive

They have lots of information and free guides on all aspects of health and safety at work including on stress, work station assessments and have a number of guides specifically for SMEs.


More information about their work and campaigns as well as resources and toolkits for employers and employees and guides tailored for SMEs.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Information and guidance for managers and business owners on processes and procedures which surround sickness absence.

Further Articles:

Sickness absence falls, but do numbers hide rise in presenteeism? 

Britain's Stress epidemic