From back pain to bird bites: can workplace interventions reduce sickness absence ?

We’re continuing our focus on health in the workplace with a look at some of the most novel excuses for not turning up, but first the serious bit – a recent systematic review on interventions to reduce sickness absence, carried out by a research team in Norway. They looked for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of workplace interventions in which the employees were active participants and found 17 to include, with 24 comparisons. Two studies were judged to be at low risk of bias and the remainder at moderate risk. Thirteen studies were excluded as they were judged to be at high risk of bias. Here’s what they found:

  • Moderate evidence that graded activity and back schools reduced sickness absence in car workers with low-back pain
  • Five composite interventions targeting musculoskeletal complaints were studied in three trials. There was limited evidence that the Sheerbrooke model (a comprehensive multidisciplinary intervention) reduced sickness absence and no evidence of effect for the other comprehensive intereventions
  • Limited evidence that cognitive behavioural therapy combined with problem solving therapy reduced sickness absence and no evidence of effect of other cognitive interventions on sickness absence
  •  Moderate evidence that workplace education aimed at targeting musculoskeletal complaints did not reduce sickness absence
  • Moderate evidence that workplace physical exercise does not reduce sickness absence

The authors concluded that:

In general, there is at best limited evidence that the workplace interventions considered are effective in reducing sickness absence

They point out that active interventions may not be very effective at reducing sickness absence in the short term but may have benefits not considered in this review. The review was well-conducted but the search was restricted to English language reports only and in fact all but one study came from the Netherlands or Nordic countries, so the findings may not be generalisable to other regions. It’s good that the studies weren’t restricted by reason for absence and the authors note that the included studies reflected known trends, with musculoskeletal complaints and mental health problems being the commonest causes of people having sick leave from work. Surveys on absenteeism also reveal some rather unusual reasons given for being absent from work and here are a few gems from last year’s CareerBuilder Survey of Absenteeism, of 2,400 employers and 3,900 workers:

  • “I forgot I had been hired for the job.”
  • “My dog was having a nervous breakdown.”
  • “My dead grandmother was being exhumed for a police investigation.”
  • “My toe was stuck in a faucet.”
  • “A bird bit me.”
  • “I was upset after watching ‘The Hunger Games.’”
  • “I got sick from reading too much.”
  • “My hair turned orange from dying my hair at home.”

In my first job, as a student nurse, the last would have seen me being told to pack my bags, as we were required by our employer, a renowned London hospital, to have “hair of a genetically-determined colour”, which seemed quite ridiculous even a lot of years ago and I can’t think that any eighteen year old would sign up to anything like that now!

Interestingly, UK sickness absence statistics have shown a fall in the number of working days lost year on year, a drop of over 25% between 2003 and 2011. If you’re interested in reading more, check out this post. I wouldn’t dare take a duvet day after writing this, so on with a day’s graft on the woodland now.


The full paper is available online:  Odeen M, Magnussen H,Maeland S, Larun L, Eriksen HR, Tveito TH. Systematic review of active workplace interventions to reduce sickness absence. Occup Med (Lond). 2013 January; 63(1): 7–16. Published online 2012 December 31. doi: 10.1093/occmed/kqs198

2012′s Most Unusual Excuses for Missing Work: “The Hunger Games” Meltdowns and More. Amy Chulik McDonnell in Employee Wellness, Survey Results. October 11th, 2012