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BACKGROUND: National initiatives to prevent and/or manage sickness absence require a database from which trends can be monitored. AIMS: To evaluate the information provided by surveillance schemes and publicly available data sets on sickness absence nationally from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). METHODS: A grey literature search was undertaken using the search engine Google, supplemented by leads from consultees from academia, industry, employers, lay interest groups and government. We abstracted data on the outcomes and populations covered and made quantitative estimates of MSD-related sickness absence, overall and, where distinguishable, by subdiagnosis. The coverage and limitations of each source were evaluated. RESULTS: Sources included the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and its Self-reported Work-related Illness survey module, the THOR-GP surveillance scheme, surveys by national and local government, surveys by employers' organizations and a database of benefit statistics. Each highlighted MSDs as a leading cause of sickness absence. Data limitations varied by source, but typically included lack of diagnostic detail and restriction of focus to selected subgroups (e.g. work-ascribed or benefit-awarded cases, specific employment sectors). Additionally, some surveys had very low response rates, were completed only by proxy respondents or ranked only the perceived importance of MSD-related sickness absence, rather than measuring it. CONCLUSIONS: National statistics on MSD-related sickness absence are piecemeal and incomplete. This limits capacity to plan and monitor national policies in an important area of public health. Simple low-cost additions to the LFS would improve the situation.

Original publication




Journal article


Occup med (lond)

Publication Date





458 - 464


Cost of Illness, Health Surveys, Humans, Insurance, Disability, Musculoskeletal Diseases, Population Surveillance, Sick Leave, United Kingdom