Common causes of work absence

As an employer, it’s inevitable that some of your employees will be absent due to sickness or illness. This type of absence will naturally resolve itself, but for a small number of employees, sickness absence can lead to much longer time off work.

Most absence is for genuine reasons and is likely to end within seven days and the most common reasons for this kind of short term absence are:

  • minor illness;
  • stress;
  • musculoskeletal disorders;
  • recurring medical conditions;
  • back pain.

Most long term absence is caused by:

  • Acute medical conditions.
  • Musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Stress.
  • Mental ill health.
  • Back pain.

Work-related illness and absence

Most illness or injury is not caused by work, but in 2007/08, an estimated 2.1 million people in the UK were suffering from an illness caused, or made worse, by their work.

Back pain, which can be caused by many situations in the workplace, is the largest reported reason for sickness absence in the UK. Other causes of work-related absence include:

  • musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs);
  • upper limb disorders (ULDs);
  • occupational asthma;
  • occupational dermatitis;
  • work-related noise;
  • hearing loss.

You can minimise the impact of work-related illnesses by recording and monitoring sickness absence andcarrying out a risk assessment for your work activities.

Sickness absence due to mental health problems and stress

At any one time, one worker in six will be experiencing depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress. In many cases, these problems lead to absence from work. The average employee takes seven days off sick each year of which 40 per cent are for mental health problems (Source: The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, Policy Paper 8). This adds up to £8.4 billion a year in sickness absence in employee mental health costs.

All employees can feel stressed at work at any given time. Some of the main reasons for sickness absence due to mental health and stress include concerns about:

  • workload demands;
  • job security;
  • work relationships;
  • work-life balance.

As an employer, you can manage stress in the workplace by preventing, or reducing, the impact of these problems and concerns.


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