Keele University awarded £1.5 million research grant to help reduce UK sickness absence

A team from Keele University’s Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences has been awarded a major grant of £1.5 million from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to investigate if an occupational health advice service for patients consulting with their GP will reduce absence from work due to ill-health.

Approximately 137 million days were lost from work in the UK due to sickness in 2016 according to the Office for National Statistics, however few employees currently receive support to manage their health at work.

GPs currently offer fit notes, previously known as sick certificates, when they feel a patient needs time off work due to ill health. However, GPs report that they find it difficult to provide work-related health advice during consultations with patients.

Previous research led by Keele University found that providing a brief occupational health advice service for patients with back and/or joint pain consulting with their GP reduced time off work and helped patients feel more confident about working with their pain problem. It is hoped that the new study will expand the work-related health advice service to other health problems.

This new study will take 4.5 years and is led by researchers at Keele University in collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham, Aston and King’s College London. It will adapt the previously successful occupational health advice service so that it is suitable for many more patients consulting their GP with health conditions affecting their ability to work.

A small number of patients, absent from work due to their health problem, will be invited to test out the new intervention in a feasibility study. After this, the intervention will then be tested in a large randomised controlled trial to investigate whether it reduces the number of days off work, and whether it is cost-effective for the NHS.

The new study (called the WAVE study) is led by NIHR Professor of Musculoskeletal Health Nadine Foster and Senior Research Fellow Dr Gwenllian Wynne-Jones, from the Primary Care Centre Versus Arthritis within the Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences at Keele University.

NIHR Professor Foster said: “Access to vocational advice remains difficult for the majority of employees. This study will make good quality advice and support for return to work available to patients before their work absence becomes long-term. We hope that it will help patients feel more confident to manage their health difficulties at work and lead to people having fewer days off work as a result.”

Dr Wynne-Jones added: “Maintaining the population’s fitness for work is a big priority for UK Government, and we hope that this study will not only help reduce absence from work due to illness but also lead to sustained return to work, improved work performance, and less psychological distress.”