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Sickness absence rates: UK is the second worst culprit

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An extra 1m employees could be at work each day across the EU – over 600,000 in the UK alone – if early interventions were more widely accessible for those with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as back pain, according to a Fit for Work Europe Coalition report. 

Over 35m days are being lost each year due to sickness absence in the UK. With many EU member states set to see 50 per cent of their population diagnosed with an MSD by 2030, the report warns that this growing problem cannot be ignored and must be urgently addressed.

As the leading cause of sickness absence across the EU, 44m workers have MSDs – including back pain and strains of the neck, shoulder and arms. This costs up to €240bn annually in lost productivity and sickness absence, representing up to  two per cent of GDP across the EU. The report calls on EU member states to coordinate action between government departments, employers and clinicians to tackle this problem and save billions while transforming the lives of those affected by such devastating conditions.

Professor Stephen Bevan, founding president of the Coalition, said: “Our analysis shows that, because access to early healthcare interventions for workers with MSDs are not being prioritised, thousands are taking unnecessarily long periods away from work or even leaving work permanently when tried and tested tactics could be helping to speed up their recovery and return to work.” 

Using data from a two-year trial of a successful early intervention clinic for people with MSDs in Madrid, Spain, the Fit for Work Coalition has developed estimates of the effect of repeating its results across 12 EU member states where comparable data exists. By assessing and treating 13,000 workers with MSDs after five days of sickness, the Madrid clinic succeeded in reducing temporary work absence by 39 per cent. The report explores the impact of these findings on 12 EU member states and predicts how they will affect all 28 EU member states.

If the Madrid results were repeated across Spain, where 26m working days are lost to MSDs each year, over 46,000 Spanish workers would be available for work each day rather than taking sick leave. In Germany, the 217m working days lost each year to MSDs could be reduced by around 39 per cent.

Dame Carol Black, Co-President of Fit for Work explains that “in the UK, 300,000 people make long-term sickness absence claims each year. With the sickness absence currently costing the UK economy £15bn, the benefits of early intervention must be taken seriously by all stakeholders and woven into government policies. Our report is also calling on EU member states to coordinate action between government departments, employers and clinicians to tackle this problem and save billions while transforming the lives of those affected by such devastating conditions.”

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