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Occupational health services drive down NHS sickness absence

The second round of the national clinical audit of occupational health (OH) care on depression detection and management of staff on long-term sickness absence in England indicates that the quality of care is improving. Between April and June 2010, the average sickness absence rate for the NHS in England was 3.89%1.

The audit, commissioned by NHS Plus and conducted by the Health and Work Development Unit (HWDU) at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), found that over 97% of the 7,636 case notes audited contained an action plan, an important part of ensuring an earlier return to work according to National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines2.

The results highlight the importance of OH services in driving down sickness absence in the NHS and the role of the national clinical audit in improving standards. Together the two are intended to result in cost savings and increased staff wellbeing and productivity, leading to improved patient care.

Other findings of the audit included:

  • The proportion of cases where depression, a condition common amongst staff on long-term sickness absence, was assessed has increased from 58% in 2008 to 67% in 2010.
  • NHS employers provided treatment for 22% of staff receiving or waiting to receive physiotherapy and 53% of staff receiving or waiting to receive psychological therapy.
  • Over 80% of NHS OH services, representing 279 NHS trusts across England participated in the second round of audit.

While the results were on the whole positive, they indicate areas in need of improvement with 30% of cases having been off sick for at least 12 weeks before they were assessed by OH services and 5% of cases having been absent for six months or more. The latter will be of particular concern to the NHS as 80% of employees who are on sick leave for 6 months fail to return to work for at least five years, if at all.

Commenting on the audit, Dame Carol Black, National Director for Health and Work said: “This is a timely reminder of the important place of occupational health services in supporting NHS staff. Safeguarding the health and wellbeing of its own workforce must be a priority for the NHS as it answers pressing challenges to improve both the quality and efficiency of patient care.”

Kit Harling, Director, NHS Plus said: “As a profession, we have been called upon to demonstrate a more proactive approach and I’m extremely pleased these results demonstrate just that. Most importantly, however, by helping to ensure NHS staff are back at work as quickly as possible, OH teams across England are clearly demonstrating the value they deliver.”

Dr Sian Williams, Clinical Director of the Health and Work Development Unit at the RCP said: “These results show that since 2008, OH services across England have improved their clinical care of NHS staff on long-term sickness absence. With the NHS required to make £20bn efficiency savings, it is clear that OH services have a vital role to play.”

Andrew McCracken, Royal College on Physicians
phone: 020 3075 1354


  1. Sickness absence figures taken from, Sickness Absence Rates in the NHS, (NHS Information Centre, April-June 2010) link:–june-2010
  2. Management of long-term sickness and incapacity for work (PH19), (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2009)

Published on: January 13, 2011

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