The most common causes of employee absence – and the ways YuLife mitigates the risk

Industry research reveals how a proactive approach to health and wellbeing can reduce workplace disruption.

Yugi the Giraffe - 1 April 2022

As the working world continues to wrestle with the upheaval and uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, it’s no surprise to learn that COVID-19 has had a far-reaching impact on employee attendance and health.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Health and Wellbeing Report 2021*, just 10% of organisations disclose that they haven’t experienced any absence due to COVID-19. Four in ten (39%) include it among their top three causes of short-term absence.

But what are the other most common causes of workplace absence in the UK? Mental ill-health is one of the main reasons for short-term absence, according to the CIPD report, but it is also *the* most common cause of long-term absence of four weeks or more. Half of the 650 organisations surveyed include it in their top three causes.

Another significant cause of both short-term and long-term absence is stress – and it’s on the rise. The proportion of companies that identify stress as one of the top three causes of long-term absence increased from 46% in 2020 to 48% in 2021.

Overall, the CIPD notes, that nearly four-fifths (79%) of respondents report some stress-related absence in their organisation during the survey year, although this figure rises to a staggering 91% of organisations that employ more than 250 people. The continued fallout of COVID-19 is listed as one of the top causes of stress at work, but workloads and relationships inside and outside of work remain considerable sources of stress.

The cumulative effects of stress

While the definition of stress means different things to different people, the long-term effect it can have on mental and physical health are unequivocal.

“There was a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013 that suggested that up to 90% of what a doctor like me sees in any given day is in some way related to stress,” says Dr Chatterjee, YuLife’s Chief Wellbeing Officer and a GP of more than 20 years.

“Whether it’s from your personal life, your work life, your to-do list or your relationships, there is a real physical change in your body. It affects every single organ system in the body and can impact your brain, mood, gut, digestion and sex drive.”

This is borne out in the results of the CIPD survey. Minor illness, such as a migraine, stomach upset or cold, continues to be the leading cause of short-term absence, with 88% of companies confirming it as one of the most common reasons for staff taking time off work. As Dr Chatterjee confirms, stress can be an underlying cause of physical ailments, and physical health problems significantly increase the risk of developing problems with mental health.

More so is the impact on the financial health of an organisation. According to a report by Forbes, 93% of managers admit that the mental health of their employees is having a negative on their bottom line.

Encouragingly, the CIPD Health and Wellbeing Report 2021 points to an increasing proportion of organisations that experience stress-related absence taking steps to address it. “Nevertheless,” it caveats, “nearly one in five respondents report their organisation is not taking any steps to identify and reduce work-related stress.”

A proactive approach to improving attendance

Breaking the stress cycle and developing a proactive health and wellbeing plan for employees is already a priority for a majority of HR professionals and managers. The CIPD reports that more than four-fifths of the surveyed organisations are using employee assistance programmes, for example. But it also cautions that 21% of respondents in organisations that are taking steps to tackle stress disagree that those organisations are effective at reducing workplace stress.

So, what are the next steps? How can employers help to further build resilience to stress, reduce workplace absence and improve the quality of life of their employees?

“When we're talking about health and wellbeing, I think we should be focusing more on behavioural health,” suggests Dr Chatterjee. “Behavioural health is really about using the science of behaviour change. Big multinational companies, whether it be Amazon or Netflix, use the science of behaviour change to get you to buy more or to watch more. However, when it comes to health, we don't really follow those rules. We think in some ways that we can just leave it up to motivation and willpower, but those companies don't leave it up to that, and nor should we.”

A behavioural science-focused approach to employee wellbeing is at the heart of the YuLife model. Where traditional group life insurance provides a more passive approach, only kicking in once the damage has been done, YuLife takes an active role in risk prevention and driving healthy behaviour.

Promoting wellbeing with the YuLife

In addition to the financial peace of mind that comes from comprehensive group risk insurance – income protection, critical illness and life insurance –  YuLife understands that to reduce people risk, a more proactive approach must be taken than the traditional reactive support of EAP and 27/7 Virtual GP (although this is included in its offering).

Its market-leading health and wellbeing benefits are focussed on lifestyle habits that increase resilience to stress, and improve mental and physical health: meditation, exercise, sleep and community.

Of course, many employers already offer health and wellbeing programmes – the secret to success is in engagement, and YuLife delivers its programme through a personalised mobile app designed around the behavioural science that supports small, sustainable shifts in daily routines. It encourages employees to find a few minutes for mindfulness and meditation, for example, or to increase the number of steps they take each day through simple triggers and rewards, making the journey to a healthier lifestyle fun and ultimately more successful.

The small changes that employees make can lead to significant wellbeing and financial gains. Using the app, YuLifers can compete in challenges with colleagues, set goals and track their progress. Each achievement earns them YuCoin – the virtual currency that can be exchanged for real-world perks and rewards.

Marrying mobile technology with behavioural science delivers a health and wellbeing programme that’s easy for employees to maintain, and equally simple for HR professionals to monitor. Anonymised reporting provides data-driven clarity about the health of the organisation, and where the approach can be fine-tuned to improve the outcome for all concerned – creating engagement in health and wellbeing benefits that increase resilience to stress.

As Dr Chatterjee concludes: “After speaking to some of the leading scientists and researchers to try and figure out what exactly stress is and how can we impact it, I've realised that a few small things that don't cost much, that don't take long to do, can have a huge impact on lowering our stress levels. And that, in turn, has a positive knock-on effect on our physical health and our mental wellbeing.”


* CIPD. (2021) Health and wellbeing at work survey 2021. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

To find out more about how YuLife can measure behavioural health, and impact positive change, get in touch with us here.

Yugi the Giraffe

Yugi is our YuLife mascot. Like all giraffes they've got a big heart – in fact the biggest heart of all land animals.