Occupational Health

by Anna Harrington

Main types and causes of sickness absence

Employee absence from work is significant to the economic viability and smooth running of an organisation. Absence costs money and is disruptive to production and to the workplace community.

For the purposes of understanding and appropriate management, it is necessary to categorise the type of absence.

Authorised and unauthorised absence

Not all absence relates to sickness. Absence can also be due to authorised leave, such as holiday, maternity/paternity leave and bereavement.

Unauthorised leave is where an employee does not turn up for work; they may or may not communicate the reason for the absence, but the organisation does not accept it as authorised absence.

Absence can also be classified into planned and unplanned: planned absence occurs when the employer and employee have agreed a period of absence (for example, for a holiday or medical treatment); unplanned relates to an unpredicted occurrence that has forced the employee to take time off work.

Categories of absence

Absence can be categorised as short-term, short-term frequent and long-term.

  • Short-term, frequent absence
  • Short-term generally relates to less than four weeks, frequent would mean that it occurs more than twice in a year.
  • Long-term absence
  • Long-term absence is an absence that is longer than four weeks.

Causes of sickness absence

The following information is extracted from the 2010 Absence Management Survey conducted by the Institute of Chartered Personnel Development (CIPD). Other organisations, such as the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), do similar surveys.

The top five most common causes for manual and non-manual short-term sickness absence are

  • Minor illness
  • Stress
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Recurring medical conditions
  • Back pain.

The most common causes of long-term absence are

  • Acute medical conditions
  • Musculoskeletal injuries
  • Stress
  • Mental ill-health
  • Back pain.

Effects of absence

The individual, his/her family and the organisation feel the effects of an employee remaining off work for a long time.

  • Long-term sickness absence increases the occurrence of mental ill health, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Lack of participation in society affects quality of life.
  • The longer an individual is off work, the more complex it is to return him/her successfully back into the workplace.
  • Once an employee has been off sick for six months or more, the likelihood of return to work is down to two to three per cent.
  • Reduced income affects quality of life and standards of living, possibly pushing the family towards deprivation.
  • Long-term sickness absence can lead to job loss.


The costs of sickness absence will be direct and indirect and will vary between different organisations. Suggestions are that it is around 16 per cent of the payroll (UNUM, 2007). The CIPD 2010 Absence Survey put a median cost of £600 per employee per year.

There is little evidence to guide where these costs occur, but below is a suggested list.

  • Occupational sick pay
  • Replacement staff
  • Reduced productivity
  • Reduced quality
  • Disruption to communications, both internally and externally
  • Administration time to make arrangements and manage the absence
  • Rehabilitation and advisory services, such as occupational health.

Employees who have to increase or diversify their workload will also feel the effects of a colleague‘s absence, through having to make unplanned changes. This can cause increased stress, and indeed the disruption to productivity and communications in itself will cause an increase in stress levels. Remaining staff may also be concerned about the absent member, which can affect concentration and focus at work.