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UK second worst sickness absence rate in Europe but new study reveals how days off sick could be significantly reduced

The UK and Germany have the worst sickness absence rates in Europe, lagging behind countries such as Poland, France and Romania. An extra one million employees could be at work each day across the EU (over 600,000 in the UK alone), if early interventions were more widely accessible for those with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as back pain.  This is according to a report from the Fit for Work Europe Coalition, written by The Work Foundation and published at a summit in the European Parliament, Brussels, endorsed by the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU Council.

Data shows that over 35 million days are already being lost each year to sickness absence in the UK. With many EU member states set to see 50% of their population diagnosed with an MSD by 2030, the report warns that this growing problem cannot be ignored and must be urgently addressed.

The leading cause of sickness absence across the EU, 44 million workers have MSDs – including back pain and strains of the neck, shoulder and arms. This costs up to €240bn annually in lost productivity and sickness absence, representing up to  2% of GDP across the EU. The report calls on EU member states to coordinate action between government departments, employers and clinicians to tackle this problem and save billions while transforming the lives of those affected by such devastating conditions.

“Our analysis now shows that, because access to early healthcare interventions for workers with MSDs are not being prioritised,” said Professor Stephen Bevan, Founding President of the Coalition – a group representing physicians, patient organisations, economists and researchers promoting policies to improve workforce health. “Thousands are taking unnecessarily long periods away from work or even leaving work permanently when tried and tested tactics could be helping to speed up their recovery and return to work,” he added.

Using data from a two-year trial of a successful early intervention clinic for people with MSDs in Madrid, Spain, the Fit for Work Coalition has developed estimates of the effect of repeating its results across 12 EU member states where comparable data exists.

By assessing and treating 13,000 workers with MSDs after five days of sickness, the Madrid clinic succeeded in reducing temporary work absence by 39%. The report explores the impact of these findings on 12 EU member states and predicts how they will affect all 28 EU member states.

Professor Steve Bevan, who is also a director at The Work Foundation said, “If these results were repeated across the whole of the EU, we estimate that up to one million workers would be available to work each day. This would be a considerable boost to productivity and significantly reduce sick pay bills at a time when member states are under pressure to make savings and increase economic growth and to tackle unemployment and under-employment. Even if the reduction in absence achieved were 25% rather than

39%, we estimate that in excess of 640,000 workers would be available for work each day.”

The analysis, led by Professor Juan Jovier, shows that, if the Madrid results were repeated across Spain, where 26m working days are lost to MSDs each year, over 46,000 Spanish workers would be available for work each day rather than taking sick leave. As the table below indicates, the numbers for 11 other EU Member States are equally striking. For example, in Germany, the 217 million working days lost each year to MSDs could be reduced by around 480,000 (39%) if the Madrid clinic results were replicated – or by over 300,000.

Dame Carol Black, Co-President of Fit for Work said: “In the UK, 300,000 people make long-term sickness absence claims each year. The results from the Spanish study reveal just how important early intervention is for people with MSDs. The study shows that permanent work disability fell by 50%, while temporary work absence fell by 39% – a vast improvement. We know that work is vital for people’s sense of self-worth, and has huge benefits for individuals as well as for the economy. With the sickness absence currently costing the UK economy £15bn, the benefits of early intervention must be taken seriously by all stakeholders and woven into government policies. Our report is also calling on EU member states to coordinate action between government departments, employers and clinicians to tackle this problem and save billions while transforming the lives of those affected by such devastating conditions.”

Purification Tejeda, a patient suffering from extreme pain from carpal tunnel syndrome, described how she benefited from the support of the early intervention clinic, “I was so scared about the impact it would have on my personal working life. I was given the right diagnosis, treatment and care very quickly and this helped to take away my unbearable pain. Thanks to this clinic, I can go back to work again. Work is so important to me. It makes me feel useful and responsible. I feel alive again.”

The full findings of the research will be presented at a summit  hosted by the Fit for Work Coalition taking place at the European Parliament today (16 October). It will be attended by the Lithuanian Minister for Health of the EU and international delegates from welfare and health government departments, businesses and healthcare organisations.


Table showing data from 12 member states (70% of the EU workforce)

As the way patients are referred to early intervention services varies considerably between countries, this data is based on a more cautious estimate scenario of 25% instead of the 39% improvement rate achieved in the Madrid clinic. Nonetheless, the number of lost working days avoided even in this conservative estimate would still be substantial and show the significant impact that wider access to early intervention could have across the EU.   


Country Days lost to MSDs each year Number available to work if Madrid results replicated Number available to work with just a 25% reduction
Germany 217m 479,973 307,675
UK 35m 62,045 39,773
Spain 26m 46,091 29,545
Poland 21.7m 38,538 24,704
France 13.4m 23,724 15,208
Austria 7.7m 13,650   8,750
Ireland 7m 12,409   7,955
Finland 5.15m  9,142   5,860
Romania 3.15m  5,594   3,586
Slovenia 2.47m  4,379   2,807
Greece 1.2m  2,472   1,584
Estonia 1.02m  1,815   1,164
TOTAL 340.79m  699,832 448,610



Notes to editors

  1. An infographic is being launched at the 5th Fit for work Europe Summit, Investing in Healthcare: Breaking down the silos taking place in the European Parliament, Brussels on 16 October 2013. These will be available from 13.00hrs BST on 16 October 2013 or from The Work Foundation media team in advance.
  2. Professor Stephen Bevan, Founding President of Fit for Work Europe and a director at The Work Foundation is available for interviews, comment and briefings Along with Fit for Work Co-presidents, Antonyia Parvanova MEP, Dame Carol Black and Professor Paul Emery are also available for interviews, comments and briefings.
  3. Fit for Work Europe is a multi-stakeholder Coalition, driving policy and practice change across the work and health agendas. We aim to deliver more investment in sustainable healthcare by promoting and implementing early intervention practices. Research shows this approach is the most effective way of ensuring people with MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders) can enter and remain in work across the EU and globally.
  4. Fit for Work Europe is a project led by The Work Foundation, supported by AbbVie and GE Healthcare. For more information, please visit,
  5. The Work Foundation aims to be the leading independent, international authority on work and its future, influencing policy and practice for the benefit of society. The Work Foundation is part of Lancaster University – an alliance that enables both organisations to further enhance their impact.
  6. AbbVie is a global, research-based biopharmaceutical company formed in 2013 following separation from Abbott. The company’s mission is to use its expertise, dedicated people and unique approach to innovation to develop and market advanced therapies that address some of the world’s most complex and serious diseases. In 2013, AbbVie employs approximately 21,000 people worldwide and markets medicines in more than 170 countries. For further information on the company and its people, portfolio and commitments, please visit
  7. GE Healthcare provides transformational medical technologies and services to meet the demand for increased access, enhanced quality and more affordable healthcare around the world. GE (traded as NYSE: GE) works on things that matter – great people and technologies taking on tough challenges. From medical imaging, software & IT, patient monitoring and diagnostics to drug discovery, biopharmaceutical manufacturing technologies and performance improvement solutions, GE Healthcare helps medical professionals deliver great healthcare to their patients. Please visit

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This entry was posted on Monday, October 21st, 2013 at 13:05 and is filed under MSDs, Policy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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