Sick-leave confusion: UK employees suffer health issues caused by unclear workplace policy

Stressed woman

Employees in the UK are increasingly suffering from office-related occupational health issues, according to research into online search data.

Analysing the first two months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, Google search data reveals dramatic rises in searches for terms like ‘sore eyes’, ‘sick building syndrome’, ‘back pain’ and ‘occupational burnout’. Some common occupational hazards have increased by more than 3-fold.

Despite this increase, there has been a lack of clarity from companies on their sick-leave policy whilst employees work from home, that has led to mass presenteeism (working whilst unwell). This is shown by searches for ‘sick day rules’ more than doubling over the last year.

These findings follow data from a study conducted in 2020 by Vitality, revealing that the UK economy lost almost £92 billion in 2019 as a result of ill-health related absence and presenteeism in the workplace. With World Health Day coming up on 7th April it is essential that employee needs are addressed to keep wellbeing levels high and extra costs low.

Home-working will continue to be a prominent part of working life post-lockdown. A recent YouGov survey revealed 3 in 4 employees believe it is likely their employers will continue to let them work from home. It is more crucial than ever that HR employee wellbeing packages and communication adapt accordingly.

How are employees being affected?

Just over a year since employees initially moved to work from home in the first lockdown, it is only now that we’re seeing the true impact that working from home has had on occupational health.

Eye strain:

Searches for ‘eye strain’ have increased by 111% so far in 2021. Related to this, searches for ‘digital eye strain’ have seen a 450% increase, whilst ‘eye strain headaches’ have also increased by 110%.

Additionally, searches for ‘sore eyes’ have increased by 170% year on year at the start of 2021.

The use of sub-par display equipment, small laptop screens, or additional time spent at screens has led to employees taking matters into their own hands for harm reduction. Searches for ‘blue light glasses’ have increased by 314% year on year compared to before lockdown.

Sick building syndrome:

There has been a 137% increase in searches for sick building syndrome, symptoms caused by unsuitable working environments involving:

  • poor ventilation or poorly maintained air conditioning systems
  • dust, smoke, fumes or fabric fibres in the air
  • bright or flickering lights
  • problems with cleaning and layout, such as crowded desks

These conditions can cause symptoms such as headaches, itchy skin, sore eyes or throat, coughing, rashes, or tiredness and difficulty concentrating.

It can be difficult to pinpoint the root cause of these symptoms when they are being experienced, but there are aspects of home living spaces that could be the culprit. Most commonly, this could be poor ventilation, irritant build-up in the carpet such as animal droppings, pollen or mould, or even nearby smokers and vehicle exhaust fumes.

Musculoskeletal conditions:

Online searches in the UK suggest that there has been a 10% rise in employees suffering from complaints linked to musculoskeletal conditions. These are common issues for office desk workers that spend a lot of time sitting, and can be worse for home-workers who have no commute to get them moving everyday.

  • Back pain – 9% increase
  • Neck pain – 5% increase
  • Shoulder pain – 16% increase
  • Pain shoulder blade – 27% increase

Stress & Burnout:

Searches for symptoms online with terms such as ‘signs of burnout’ increased by 24% throughout 2020 compared to the previous year.

This is an issue that’s been building for years – global online searches for the term ‘occupational burnout’ have increased by more than 2500% since 2015, and the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled even faster rise in work-related mental health issues.

What HR can do to better tackle employee health issues?

Lou Campbell, co-founder and programmes director at Mindfulness in the Workplace, says: “Providing targeted and intelligent wellbeing services to employees is absolutely a remedy to this problem and medium to large businesses are certainly offering at least some wellbeing services to their employees. A two-pronged approach works best – offering confidential one to one sessions to those who are in crisis or experiencing moderate to severe mental health issues; and awareness sessions focusing on how to maintain positive mental health, work life balance, healthy habits, whole-person health to the wider group of employees.”

  • Clear communication of sick leave

Communication hugely contributes to preventing those initial feelings of pressure that can stop employees feeling like they can take the sick leave they have been allocated.

By openly encouraging employees to use their sick leave regularly throughout the year, an overall healthier work-life balance is fostered. In turn potential occupational health issues can be diluted before they start to impact employees’ productivity and the business as a whole.

  • Supply of proper desk setup

Ensuring employees have the correct equipment and a suitable setup for home-working is crucial for preventing injuries that could affect overall productivity and wellbeing. It is essential that employees have an appropriate set up for maintaining their physical health.

This should include a back-supporting desk chair, screens at the correct height to eye level and display equipment or harm-prevention measures to reduce eye strain. The desirable work surface height should mean when sat up straight, forearms are parallel to the ground and wrists do not bend up or down when typing which can cause musculoskeletal issues.

  • Encourage healthy lifestyles

7.83% of the cost of lost business productivity is attributed to smoking-related absences and presenteeism. Recent research into smoking cessation in England found that in 2020 smoking cost companies £7.2 billion in lost productivity. Analysis of PHE data showed that smoking will cost businesses an additional £88.9 billion in lost productivity costs until the nation becomes officially ‘smoke-free’.

Company policies are needed to encourage employees to keep up a healthy lifestyle, keep presenteeism at bay, and also save on costs in the long-term. These could include smoking cessation support, healthy lifestyle incentives, and encouraging fitness through paid-for classes or even short brisk walks throughout the day.

Angela Knox, Director of workplace employee wellbeing program Keep Fit Eat Fit, says: “If employers have systems in place that are designed for regular monitoring of each employee then problems can be identified and dealt with before they escalate. Opportunities to intervene can easily be missed.  In larger companies with higher head counts it is a good idea for the head of HR to have eyes and ears in the various departments so that they can keep track of any key developments or problems before they occur.”