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Sick in the Workplace: 1.4 Million Suffering from Work-Related Ill Health

The latest statistics on workplace ill health from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) make for interesting reading. 1.4 million of us suffered from work-related ill health in 2018/19, with nearly half a million new cases appearing. Collectively, 23.5 million working days were lost to work-related ill health over this period.

The figures hint at the scale of the human cost of poor health and safety in the workplace. For each of these cases there’s someone who has suffered hardship because of work, often long-term, and in some cases fatal.

What are the Causes?

A staggering 44% of work-related ill health is caused by stress, depression and anxiety. The majority of days off sick have this cause. In many cases, due to the weakening but sadly still present stigma around mental health, workers may attribute their absence to a physical illness to avoid telling their managers. Taking mental health seriously is a huge priority for all organisations.

Musculoskeletal disorders were another prominent issue. Unsurprisingly, industries such as agriculture and construction have a higher than average rate, but all companies need to make sure they’re offering proper trained in manual handling. In offices, spending too long at the keyboard in the wrong position can lead to musculoskeletal problems later on. These can often be long-term and cause severe pain; in some cases, people will be unable to work due to their symptoms.

It’s important not to dismiss the early signs of these conditions as “just a sign of ageing”. Most people have room for improvement in their posture or working conditions and should see a doctor if they feel they might be developing a disorder.

The causes of workplace injuries are relatively familiar. Slips, trips and falls were the most common cause once again, with manual handling close behind. Shockingly, 8% of workplace injuries were caused by acts of violence. It’s unacceptable that anyone should face violence or aggression at their workplace. Some jobs, such as healthcare, security and retail, have a higher than average risk of encountering this poor conduct and employers should take every step necessary to make sure their workers are protected. Anyone can be a victim of workplace violence or aggression, so even in industries that don’t suffer from a higher risk, managers need to take this very seriously.

Occupational lung disease affects thousands of people. In fact, an estimated 12,000 people die each year from past exposures at work. Asbestos damage is sadly common. This highlights how inadequate health and safety can have an impact on employees years after the problem occurred.

Will Things Improve?

Work-related ill health declined for a number of years but has been broadly flat in recent times. With the right training, legislation and commitment from people in all industries, there’s no reason why we won’t see further improvements.

For employers, the most important thing to do immediately is to listen to their staff. The people doing the work on a daily basis are the ones with the most valuable insights into potential hazards and what they need to mitigate them. This is especially valuable during the risk assessment process.

Overall, the UK’s health and safety culture compares favourably with many others around the world. It is one of the safest places to work in Europe. There’s no reason why the trend towards improvement in recent decades shouldn’t continue, as long as the right conditions are maintained and it remains a top priority for businesses and employees alike.

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