Long-term sickness is an increasingly common concern for UK business owners and team leaders. A recent report suggests that the cost of long-term absence is set to increase from £3.13 billion in 2021 to £4.81 billion by 2030 (source). Losing employees for prolonged periods presents several challenges for HR professionals and company directors. In this article, we’ll discuss the cost and causes of long-term sickness and share advice to help reduce the risk of employee absence.

What is the cost of long-term sickness?

Long term sickness

Statistics from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) show that absence linked to long-term illness costs private sector UK businesses more than £4 billion per year. Long-term illnesses have become more common in recent years and figures are expected to increase in the next decade due to the ageing population and the growing prevalence of mental health disorders. Although illnesses that cause employees to take time off work have become more common, the rate of absenteeism fell from 9.3 days per employee in 2000 to 5.8 days per employee in 2020 (source).

What causes long-term absences?

The most common cause of long-term absence in the UK is poor mental health. In 2021, mental illness was the most common reason people took sick leave. Over 56% of absences were linked to mental ill health, including clinical anxiety and depression (source).

Musculoskeletal conditions, such as back and neck pain, accounted for 46% of long-term absences. Over 37% of workers who experienced long-term sickness suffered from stress and 37% were undergoing treatment or recovering from acute health problems, including heart attacks, cancer and strokes.

It is important to note the increasing prevalence of mental illness, as studies from 2000 didn’t even feature mental health conditions as a cause of long-term absence in the UK.

What is considered a long-term absence?

Most employers define a long-term absence as a period of 28 days or more. If an employee takes more than four weeks off sick, this is usually classed as a long-term sickness absence. The CEBR report estimates costs for private sector businesses based on long-term absences of six months or more.

How can businesses and employers reduce long-term absences?

The implications of long-term employee absence can be extremely damaging for businesses and their employees, but there are ways to reduce risks and enhance protection and prevention. Research indicates that being proactive and implementing policies and interventions can reduce the cost and duration of absences linked to health issues. Figures from the CEBR show that using absence management policies and intervention services can decrease the average duration of leave by 17%. This figure rises to 18% among individuals with mental illnesses (source).

  • One of the best ways to reduce long-term absences is to draw up and enforce a long-term absence sickness policy. Here are some best practice guidelines to follow:
  • Outline the purpose of the absence policy
  • Establish employee and manager expectations from the outset
  • Provide detailed information about employee requirements, including presenting medical evidence and keeping in contact with the management and HR teams
  • Maintain contact throughout the period of absence
  • Outline employee entitlements, including sick pay and holiday quotas
  • Establish clear points at which employees are referred to occupational health or other health services
  • Ensure there are procedures in place to collect information and seek expert medical advice in line with data protection requirements
  • Identify suitable milestones and checkpoints to schedule meetings with the employee, for example, after 28 days, 3 months and 6 months
  • Provide details about managing the transition to coming back to work, including phased returns and a temporary change of job or reduced workload
  • Set a date or time frame for back-to-work interviews
  • Provide additional information about special cases, for example, pregnancy, disability, terminal illness and early retirement

The importance of communication


All of the points listed above highlight the importance of effective communication between HR departments and company managers and employees. Your policy should be accessible, and it should contain accurate, up-to-date, detailed information. Employees should be aware of the policy and what it means for them if they have a long-term illness and they are absent for a prolonged period. From the first meeting about taking time off, employers and HR professionals should encourage open, ongoing communication.

Adopting a preventative approach

As well as implementing targeted absence management policies, organisations can also reduce long-term sickness by adopting a preventative approach. Suggestions include:

  • Introducing policies and guidelines to help employees achieve a healthier work-life balance
  • Identifying triggers
  • Providing training for managers and team leaders
  • Offering better support for employees who have a higher risk of developing long-term health issues
  • Utilising early intervention services
  • Encouraging communication between employers and employees

What can K2A do to help reduce long-term absence?

K2A offers absence management services to help organisations reduce long-term sickness. K2A provides management training and training to help leaders implement back-to-work interviews. Teams also work with employers to draw up effective sickness absence policies. K2A can also undertake absence consultations and offer customised advice and recommendations for specific absence cases and assist with evaluating employee fitness to work.

K2A recommends further investigation for frequent short-term sickness absences, long-term sickness absences, returning to work after a prolonged period of illness and under-performing at work due to a high risk of underlying health issues.


Long-term sickness costs businesses in the UK billions of pounds per year. It may not be possible to prevent every absence, but there are ways to manage sickness absences and reduce risks. Every organisation should have a comprehensive sickness absence policy. It is also beneficial to adopt preventative approaches and early intervention services to protect employees and decrease the risk of long-term absences.

If you need advice about long-term sickness and absence management or information about absence management services, don’t hesitate to contact K2A.