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Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

Short and long-term sickness causes a significant amount of absence from work. Some illnesses can be treated successfully at home using over-the-counter medication, while other conditions are lifelong, requiring repeated treatment and close management. In the majority of cases, it should be possible to manage your condition at work by following guidance from your GP, along with any necessary adjustments.

Short-term illness

Short-term sickness is by far the most common cause of one-off and recurring absence. It’s likely that you, or someone you know, will have experienced at least one short term illness over the past 12 months.

A short-term illness is likely to last less than seven days and so a fit note will not be needed.

Common short-term illnesses include:

  • colds and flu;
  • stomach upsets;
  • headaches and migraines.

If you have regular, or repeated, periods of absence there could be health reasons that need to be investigated. Your employer is likely to monitor how often you’re off work and for what reasons in order to identify patterns of absence that could help reveal any underlying problems.


A cold is a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It can cause:

  • a sore or irritated throat;
  • a blocked or runny nose;
  • coughing and sneezing;
  • a mild fever.

Colds usually get better without the need for medical treatment, but you can treat the symptoms at home and work by:

  • drinking plenty of fluids;
  • getting plenty of rest;
  • eating healthily;
  • using over-the-counter medicines, such as painkillers and decongestants.

Find out more about the best way to treat a common cold on NHS Choices.


Flu is an infectious viral illness spread by coughs and sneezes. It’s caused by a different group of viruses to the common cold and its symptoms tend to last longer and be more severe.

Some common symptoms of flu include:

  • sudden high temperature;
  • headache;
  • tiredness;
  • cough and sore throat;
  • general aches and pains.

If you’re otherwise fit and healthy, there’s usually no need to see a doctor if you have flu-like symptoms. You can treat the symptoms of flu at home by:

  • keeping warm;
  • drinking plenty of fluids;
  • getting plenty of rest.

Find out more about the flu, and when to see a doctor, on NHS Choices.

Upset stomach

An upset stomach (gastroenteritis) is a common condition where the stomach and intestines become inflamed. It is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection such as norovirus or food poisoning.

The main symptom is repeated diarrhoea, but you might also experience:

  • nausea and vomiting;
  • loss of appetite;
  • stomach cramps;
  • aching limbs;
  • headaches;
  • a fever.

Most cases of gastroenteritis don’t require treatment and the symptoms will improve in a few days, although medication may be recommended if the condition is severe. You should drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and if you feel like eating, you should eat healthily.

Find out more about the best way to treat gastroenteritis on NHS Choices.

Headaches and migraines

Headaches are one of the most common, and easily treated, health complaints. Most aren’t serious and can be treated effectively using over-the counter medication.

Headaches have a variety of causes and can be categorised into:

  • Primary – not caused by an underlying health problem (e.g. tension headaches and migraines).
  • Secondary – caused by an illness, injury or as a side-effect of medication.

Find out about different types of headaches on NHS Choices.

Long term or chronic conditions

Long term or chronic conditions are health conditions that:

  • last a year or longer;
  • impact on a person’s life;
  • may require ongoing care and support.

These conditions are a common cause of regular, repeated and lengthy absence. However, many people with long term conditions want to, and are able to, work with the support of employers and health professionals.

Common long term conditions include:

  • diabetes;
  • lung diseases and respiratory problems;
  • cancer.

Understanding how to live well with these conditions will help you to remain in, and get back to, work following a leave of absence.


Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high. There are two main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes – where the body produces no insulin so you will need to have insulin injections for the rest of your life.
  • Type 2 diabetes – where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or is resistant to the insulin that is produced. The condition may be managed by a healthy diet and exercise, but may also need tablets and/or insulin to ensure control is as good as it can be.

If diabetes isn’t treated and managed well, it can lead to a number of different health problems, such as:

  • heart disease and stroke;
  • nerve damage;
  • vision problems;
  • kidney disease;
  • foot problems.

Find out how to live well with type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes on NHS Choices.

Diabetes UK also has a lot of good information to help you live with and manage diabetes

Lung diseases and respiratory problems

Lung conditions are some of the most common medical conditions in the world and also one of the most common reasons for work absence due to a long term or chronic condition.

Some common lung conditions include asthma and COPD.

If you have a chronic lung condition you might have bad days when your symptoms become more severe, your breathing more laboured and you feel too unwell to be in work.

The British Lung Foundation has some good information to support you to live well with a lung condition.


Being diagnosed with cancer can be one of the most difficult situations that anyone has to face. It can affect every aspect of your life, including your ability to work, and causes a great deal of stress, anxiety and worry for you and the people around you.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer you will need tests and treatments, which usually mean spending time in hospital and away from work.

The symptoms of cancer, or side effects of treatment, may also make it more difficult to work. For some people these effects will be temporary, while others may need to make lasting changes to their working lives.

Macmillan Cancer Support offers a lot of good information about how cancer affects work for employees, employers and the self-employed.

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