Keele researchers developing vocational advice service that could reduce UK sickness absence

A team from Keele University is researching how to use an occupational health advice service to reduce absence from work due to ill-health in the UK.

Last year, the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme awarded Keele researchers £1.5 million to investigate whether an occupational health advice service could reduce sickness absence and help patients with their health conditions, across the country.

Approximately 141 million working days were lost from work in the UK because of sickness or injury in 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics – the equivalent of 4.4 days per worker. 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 reduced time off work and helped patients feel more confident about working.

The team, from Keele’s School of Primary, Community and Social Care, are now one year into a new 4.5-year study.

They are in the final stages of adapting a service from the previous study so that it is ready for use with patients whose physical and mental health conditions affect their ability to work. The service will be further adapted to ensure it is appropriate given the restrictions imposed by Covid-19.

The researchers have also developed a training programme for vocational support advisers to deliver the new service.

The study – known as WAVE - is led by Nadine Foster, Professor of Musculoskeletal Health at Keele, and Dr Gwenllian Wynne-Jones, Reader within the Primary Care Centre Versus Arthritis within the School of Primary, Community and Social Care.

The vocational advice service will be tested with 720 patients from general practices across the country. The researchers will analyse whether the advice service reduces the number of days off work the patients take and whether the service is cost-effective for the NHS.

Professor Foster said: “Few of us receive support to manage our health at work despite the fact that our health affects our ability to work. We go to our GPs for support, but few GPs are confident in offering advice on how we should manage our physical and mental health conditions at work.

“We are developing a vocational advice service for patients whose physical and mental conditions affect their ability to work and will be investigating if this can reduce the number of days off work we take across the UK.”

The study is in collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham, Aston and King’s College London.