Does your organisation record the reasons why people are absent from work? If you do, well done, because according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), only around one third of organisations do. How then can the HSE tell us that in 2016/17 the number of days taken off work for work-related stress, anxiety and depression overtook the number of days taken off for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)?
Statistics for reporting sickness
Accident reporting statistics are based on the mandatory reporting requirements of the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). However, the HSE reporting of sickness is based on a survey – a sample of the population, scaled up to estimate the figures across the country. The HSE estimates that sickness absence rates are worse in larger organisations than smaller ones, that for men the highest absence rate is amongst 45-54 year olds, and for women amongst 35-44 year olds, and that people working in health and social care have higher rates of absence than skilled trades.
But these are all estimates, and it won’t help your organisation to tackle ill-health in your organisation if you simply map these figures onto your organisation. The HSE estimate of 25.7 million days of work-related sickness absence ignores a large proportion of the absences that reduce productivity and increase costs. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) analysed the reasons for an estimated 137.3 million days of sickness absence, from all causes. The graph shows the number of days estimated for work-related and all other causes of MSD and mental health absences.
The graph shows how much more can be gained by not limiting work-place health programmes to work‑related causes of illness. You should make sure that everything practicable can be done to eliminate the hazardous aspects of manual handling at work by reducing the handling needed and by designing work flows around people. Where sedentary work from long-hours of sitting at a computer or driving is a problem, you should consider how work can be planned to introduce activity and movement into the working day. But what about the evenings and weekends?
The additional 20+ million days of sickness absence that appear to come from non-work-related MSD might also be managed by encouraging healthy activity outside of work, or offering an early referral to a physiotherapist regardless of the perceived cause of the problem. If you explain why you’re re-organising the stock room to reduce handling risks, perhaps you can encourage staff to go home and re-organise the shed or the kitchen to reduce the same risks at home.
The HSE figures suggest that the biggest cause of work-related stress is workload, responsible for 44% of all days lost due to stress. However, the gap between work-related stress, depression and anxiety, and other causes of mental health absence is another 3+ million days that could be reduced by looking at problems outside of work. Often it is the tension between demands at home and at work that cause the stress and anxiety. Flexible working, for example, might help people meet the demands of the workplace in a way that doesn’t cause problems at home.
How to improve your organisation's strategies
In both cases there is much to be gained by understanding what the situation is in your own organisation before you plan your health and wellbeing strategy. If you were deciding whether to put more resources into managing, for example, work at height or electrical safety, you would look at the organisation’s risk profile for those hazards. How much of each type of work do we do? What are the current safe guards? Are there any recorded accidents or near misses? Similarly if you want to tackle ill-health, you need to understand why people take time off work.
By collecting the reasons for sickness absence you will know whether stress or MSD (or something else) is your biggest problem. Where stress is the problem, you could use the HSE’s free Management Standards tools to better understand the causes of stress in your workplace – just because the “average” cause is workload, it could be something quite different in your organisation. If MSDs are the biggest problem you’ll also need to work out if the causes are manual handling, or by contrast, too much time sitting still. The HSE MSD toolkit will help you identify where you can reduce manual handling risks. If a sedentary lifestyle, whether at work or at home is the problem, take a look at the British Heart Foundation suggestions on how to encourage more activity.
If your organisation does collect the reasons for sickness absences, well done – hopefully you’re already working with HR to make use of that information in planning areas of health to target. If reasons are not collected, have a chat with someone in HR and see what influence you can have on how sickness absences are recorded. And perhaps don’t get too hung up on whether an absence is work-related or not – if you can reduce home-related stress and MSD absences, your organisation will benefit.
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