What’s driving the surge in work-related ill health?

Work related ill-health has ‘gone through the roof’ with more than 30 million working days lost due to issues ranging from workplace stress to back pain.

Trade unions are calling on the government to increase statutory sick pay (SSP), after data released by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that there were more than 1.8m work-related ill health cases in 2021-22.

The vast majority of cases were due to mental health issues (51%) and musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders (27%), in particular back and upper limb issues.

Much of this absence can be prevented (to avoid the need for employees to live on just £99.35 SSP a week), so here are three steps you can take to reduce the risk of employees becoming sick or injured through work.

Step 1: Make it difficult for employees to injure themselves

It might sound obvious, but the less opportunity employees have to injur themselves at work, the less likely they are to become sick due to work. Unfortunately, when it comes to reducing workplace health risks, it’s all too easy to have a health and safety team complete a risk assessment, then file it without going further to put in place easy measures that actually reduce the risks to employees.

This means employees are still able to physically injure themselves at work, typically through poor mechanics or using equipment in an unsafe way. As part of the risk assessment, employees might even have been advised not to carry out an activity a certain way, but if you’re serious about reducing workplace accidents, you can’t just tell employees to change the way they’ve always done something, you have to change the culture or design out risk.

For example, when a factory realised workers were going absent due to a variety of injuries linked to heavy lifting, instructing them to carry out two-man lifting didn’t create the necessary change. This was partly because workers were used to lifting heavy bags of ingredients out of habit and partly because many saw the lifting as part of their daily workout. It was only once the sacks were made too heavy to lift alone that they finally started sharing the load and using new equipment designed to help them.

Similarly, if you tell someone not to push a trolley or sit in the way they always have, they might be able to change this for a short time, until they habitually revert to what feels normal for them. However, if you adapt the handles of the trolley, or supply ergonomic equipment, they will have no choice but to work in a healthier way, as the risk is designed out.


Step 2: Enforce healthy working practices

If you told an employee to put their hand into a flame, they would probably refuse on the grounds that it would injure them. However, far too many employees regularly damage their mental health by working in ways that they know are detrimental to their wellbeing.

Simply telling people not to extend their day in unhealthy ways won’t create the change needed if they are also being set unachievable targets. This means managing out mental health risks requires going beyond simply educating people about the benefits of working in short productive bursts, taking sufficient breaks, eating properly, exercising in the fresh air every day, having positive interaction with others and getting enough sleep.

Most people are aware that they’re working in ways that are undermining their health, and mental health in particular. They do this because, in the short-term, pushing themselves to hit that deadline or get that extra task done makes them feel validated. Given the choice between working late or prioritising their wellbeing, they will typically choose the former, even though this makes them less productive and more likely to become sick in the long run.

It's therefore essential that employers compel workforces to adopt healthy working practices. Essential to this is obliging managers to not just tell employees to take a proper lunch break and make time for hobbies, relationships and physical activity outside of work, but creating a workplace culture that actually enables this. Critical to this is focusing on productivity and output, rather than hours worked, by properly prioritising what needs to be done, so employees have the time needed to look after themselves.


Step 3: Utilise positive peer pressure

It’s often the smallest tweaks that make the biggest difference when it comes to reducing the prevalence of work-related injuries. Unsurprisingly, the people who are best placed to know what those tweaks are is the people actually doing the work. So, the more you can get them to share best practice and tips with each other the better.

A useful exercise is to display a body chart and encourage all the members of a team, or those completing a similar role, to add stickers to the body chart relating to where they often have cuts, small injuries, or niggles. When we recently performed this exercise with a cohort of council environmental services employees, the majority of people had various hand symptoms from the tools such as leaf blowers, apart from one individual who said he used to have but has this great pair of vibration absorbing gloves now.

Naturally, everyone in the room was keen to get a pair for themselves and is dedicatedly wearing them, in a way that would have been unlikely to have been achieved had the council decided to impose its own solution on employees.

Older workers can benefit from talking to each other about the additional niggles they might be experiencing as they age and ways of mitigating these. While women in their 30-40s can benefit from workshops that facilitate discussion about managing the symptoms of perimenopause (the run up to menopause), which typically include weaker joints and brain fog, which can result in memory and anxiety issues that typically get misdiagnosed as mental health disorders.


Reducing work-related ill health

Join our multi-disciplinary musculoskeletal (MSK) and mental health team for our latest webinar on how to identify and reduce workplace health risks. We will be discussing topics ranging from designing out physical risks to reducing the prevalence of workplace stress.

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How can PAM Group help?


Workforce analytics

Help to identify the underlying reasons for absence at your organisation and ways to reduce the risk factors associated with the demographic of your workforce.

Absence case management

Referral pathways for managers to flag up individuals affected by MSK issues, so they can have a clinical consultation and case-managed access to support to help them recover.

Body mapping workshops

Group workshop to encourage employees to share insights about workplace injuries and niggles they’re experiencing and best practices on how to prevent these. 

Metal health solutions

Nip mental health problems in the bud with a 24-7 Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) staffed by professional counsellor and access to in-depth counselling and trama support.

Physiotherapy information line (PhIL)

Provide employees with immediate telephone access to a musculoskeletal expert for advice on musculoskeletal injury management, to reduce injury time and risk of further injury.


For more information about how we can support your people to stay in work or recover:
Visit: www.pamphysiosolutions.co.uk
Email: pamphysiosolutions@people-am.com
Call: 01925 989741

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