In May 2023 the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that long-term sickness levels have reached a record high at 2.55 million. Against a backdrop of increasing skills shortages, this article considers what this means for employers and how they can proactively manage long term sickness cases.

Darren Morgan, director of economic statistics at the ONS, was recently interviewed by the BBC and cited mental health conditions, back and neck pains that may be linked to home working, and said there had also been “an increase in the category that includes post-viral fatigue, so perhaps ‘long-Covid’ having an impact”.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Mental Health Conditions

According to the charity Mind, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind in England every year.

Supporting employees suffering from poor mental health requires compassion and understanding. Communication is absolutely key and where poor mental health leads to long term sickness absence, agreeing on how and when to keep in touch is important.

Occupational health support will be critical to establishing likely prognosis and how the employee can be best supported to return to the workplace. A phased return might be a helpful strategy for someone returning to work after a period of mental health related absence, as will supportive measures, such as regular line manager check ins and the provision of a mentor or coach to facilitate a successful reintegration back into work.

Musculoskeletal (MSK) Conditions

According to the NHS, over 20 million people in the UK, almost one third of the population, have a MSK condition such as arthritis or back pain. Symptoms can include pain, stiffness, limited movement, and disability which affect quality of life and independence.

They further report that over 30 million working days are lost due to MSK conditions every year in the UK and they account for up to 30% of GP consultations in England.

It is widely thought that increased home working, particularly poor workstation set ups, has led to an increase in MSK conditions.

Employers should ensure they are conducting workstations assessments. They should take steps to minimise any risks and fund suitable equipment where this is required. The Government funded Access to Work scheme can help to fund equipment in some circumstances. Employers should also encourage employees to take regular breaks from their desk and promote physical activity. Access to work link.

Where an MSK condition results in long term sickness, employers should also make use of occupational health to try to identify ways to help the employee return to work.

Long Covid and Post Viral Fatigue

According to the NHS, most people with COVID-19 feel better within a few days or weeks of their first symptoms and make a full recovery within 12 weeks. For some people, symptoms can last longer.

This is called long COVID or post COVID-19 syndrome. Long COVID is a new condition which is still being studied.

There is an extensive list of potential symptoms associated with the condition and recovery times can vary. This means it can be difficult to obtain any definitive guidance from Occupational Health and plan for the future.

Individuals with long Covid may be referred to specialist clinics to help them manage their symptoms. From an employer’s perspective, referral to Occupational Health will still be beneficial in ensuring medical advice is obtained and guidance followed wherever possible. As with any long term absence, regular communication will be key. Again, a phased approach or temporary or permanent changes to job role might need to be considered in order to support an employee back to the workplace.

For advice and support managing long term sickness please contact Sarah Martin in our team on 07799 136091.

You may also like to explore our HR & Employment Law eLearning courses to help you upskill the line managers in your organisation on managing sickness absence and other common HR issues. To find out more and arrange a demo of the training please contact Imogen Street on 07384 545 998.