Poor Lifestyle Choices Cause More Sick Days

lifestyle choices

Employees who take regular sick days have their bosses questioning their lifestyle choices.

How does smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity and low physical activity affect the number of sick days an employee takes each year?

For this article, we review research that looks at these lifestyle choices for 74,296 employees in the UK, France and Finland to see if they have a negative impact. About half of participants were overweight or obese, one in three to one in five were physically inactive, consumed high levels of alcohol, or both. One in five were smokers, and one in ten reported heavy episodic drinking.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in alcohol consumption and obesity due to lock-downs and movement restrictions. Although the results of this study were pre-pandemic, they highlight the possible future impact of lifestyle choices as a result of COVID-19.

Research Key Findings

The key findings of this research are:

  • Being overweight and having low physical activity are associated with absences due to musculoskeletal diseases
  • Heavy episodic drinking, smoking, low physical activity, and obesity are associated with absences due to depressive disorders
  • Obesity and smoking are associated with absences due to circulatory diseases
  • Low physical activity, obesity and smoking are associated with absences due to respiratory and digestive diseases.

MSD and Manual Handling Injuries

This study showed that there is a link between a high Body Mass Index (BMI) and pain. Obesity causes limitations in mobility, which may also restrict work.

People who smoke or binge drink are reflective of a  risk-taking lifestyle. Risk-taking increases the risk of accidents and injuries.

Previous research has also shown an association between smoking and workplace injuries.

And, there is also an association between high alcohol consumption and increased workplace injuries.

See our article, Manual Handling Injuries Are a Top Safety Theme.

See our course on Safe Manual Handling.


People with a high BMI are more likely to be depressed.

One suggested treatment to overcome depressive disorders is to increase physical activity. However, the pandemic has seen an increase in working hours and a blur between work and personal time, with many people working from home. Restrictions have resulted in less time to exercise and a reduction in physical fitness options.

Smoking is associated with adverse changes in brain structure and neural circuity in the brain regions, which can manifest as depressed mood, agitation, and anxiety shortly after a cigarette is smoked.

There is also a strong association between heavy episodic drinking, depression and sickness absence.

See our article, Depression Symptoms Rise When You Work Long Hours.

See our course on Depressive Thoughts and Alcohol Use.

Circulatory Diseases

People with a high BMI are likely to have circulatory diseases that lead to morbidity, mortality, and disability.

High BMI is strongly associated with an incapacity to work among working populations.

Also, smoking adversely influences the circulatory system and enhances inflammation and blood clotting.

Respiratory and Digestive Diseases

Smoking creates a hazardous load on the respiratory system. However, physical activity increases cardio-respiratory fitness, which can protect from respiratory diseases.

Specific digestive diseases that are related to obesity include oesophageal diseases, gastritis, diarrhoea, diverticular diseases, and gallbladder problems.

It is clear from this research conducted with a substantial number of participants across three countries that:

Lifestyle factors, particularly obesity, smoking, and low physical activity, are associated with longer or more frequent absences from work and multiple-cause absences.

Regular Sick Days Due to Poor Lifestyle Choices

What can you do to help employees who have regular sick days due to their own poor lifestyle choices?

Organisations can promote healthy lifestyle choices, support quit smoking campaigns and healthy eating options.

Many businesses encourage gym memberships and community sport and exercise events, such as fun runs. As we emerge from the pandemic, fitness choices are becoming more easily available.

But what if poor lifestyle choices are impacting employee mental health and they are experiencing depressive symptoms?

This research showed that the greatest public health benefits in terms of reduced sickness absence due to depressive disorders were related to the elimination of low physical activity, heavy episodic drinking, and smoking.

However, reaching out and seeking help when feeling depressed is often difficult. Especially, with the stigma associated with mental health still alive and well in many workplaces.

See our article, Stigma and Barriers to Mental Health Care.

Supporting Employees with Depressive Symptoms

What can we do to support employees with depressive symptoms?

Managing mental health in the workplace is a constant challenge and often centres around tackling stigma and encouraging help-seeking.

Encouraging employees who are experiencing mental health issues to seek help is important because they can then begin to make some positive changes.

The rise in obesity, the decrease in physical activity and employees who make poor lifestyle choices results in 20-25% of the workforce experiencing a mental health issue at any given time, with high numbers experiencing depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms are on the rise as the world battles with the COVID-19 pandemic.

And, research shows that 50% of people with declining mental health, don’t or won’t seek help.

See our article, Develop a Mentally Healthy Workplace.

How Much is the Average Stress Claim?

The average Australian mental health stress claim costs $75,000 in workers compensation costs and requires 15 weeks off work. Investing to Save is a joint Mental Health Australia and KPMG  report that provides tangible options to delivering additional economic and productivity gains for businesses supporting workplace mental health.

One of the recommendations includes the introduction of mental health wellbeing screening checks. Any employee who is screened to have heightened depression are immediately referred to a psychological service. This is an effective tool in increasing employee wellbeing and reducing lost workdays.

Training Mental Health Literacy

The Tap into Safety Mental Health Courses helps organisations to identify staff groups with mental health issues early on. Training to increase mental health literacy helps employees to identify heightened levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

The use of the mental health courses helps to increase mental health literacy by providing refresher training on workplace stressors that impact mental health. They teach practical coping strategies. The training provides an alternative method of a non-confrontational way to encourage help seeking.

Encouraging help seeking in the workplace is vital. It leads to early intervention and quicker recovery.

Our per use ‘credits’ pricing model provides access to the mental health training  for a low fee and once registered, clients continue to have access to predictive results that indicate trends in employee mental health. Early indicators in declining employee mental health can help to inform organisations where best to spread resources and target training and support.

Most importantly, from an employee help perspective, once a business is registered on the Tap into Safety Platform, employees can continue to access the help seeking features and support resources, at no charge to the business.

It is also very important to recognise that tackling mental health decline and managing depressive symptoms is not solved in a one sized fits all approach. Organisations need to offer a variety of solutions and activities to encourage people who need help, to reach out and do so as early as possible.

If you would like to know more about our Mental Health Literacy Training contact us and try a FREE online demo today.

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