Sickness-related absences at a record high, use of occupational health care services growing significantly – Mehiläinen's Chief Occupational Health Physician: “We need to go back to the policies before the pandemic”

Press release 3 January 2023

In 2022, sickness-related absences accounted for up to 10.5%* more absences per employee than in the previous year. The demand for occupational health care services is also growing significantly. Demand for Mehiläinen's occupational health care services grew by 17% during the same period.

Data from Mehiläinen's more than 550,000 private occupational health care customers indicates that the increase in sickness-related absences continued above the pre-pandemic level. The number of sickness-related absence days increased in January to October by up to 10.5% per employee.

At the same time, the health care sector has been hit by a crisis as a result of the care backlog caused by the pandemic, the COVID-19 operations burdening the system and insufficient human resources. This has increased the demand for occupational health care services for acute illnesses.

“Sickness-related absences exacerbate the labour shortage, especially in the service and care sectors. Absences challenge both companies facing cost pressure and the public sector. The spread of COVID-19 has not been prevented through the COVID-19 operations, and the health safety benefits have been scarce,” says Sirkku Martti, Chief Occupational Health Physician at Mehiläinen.

Self-reporting procedure needs to be adopted again

At the moment, the main cause of sickness-related absences is respiratory tract and COVID-19 infections. The number of absences caused by these conditions tripled in January-October 2022. The number of absences of 4–10 days increased by more than 3.5 times.

“The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare recommends that COVID-19 infections with mild symptoms do not require medical attention. Workplaces should return to their policies prior to the pandemic, where employees and supervisors agree on the possibility to be absent from work one day at a time due to acute respiratory illness through a self-report procedure,” says Martti.

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 infections also changed the protocol of determining the need for treatment and sickness-related absence with regard to other respiratory diseases. Temporary amendments to the Health Insurance Act on infectious disease allowance certificates have increased the demand for occupational health care services, companies' occupational health care costs and sickness-related absences.

“In 2022, 30% of Mehiläinen's occupational health care services were focused on the treatment of respiratory tract and COVID-19 infections, and in particular, the measures required by infectious disease allowance certificates,” Martti describes.

In the future, there will be no grounds for verifying COVID-19 infections with a PCR or antigen test due to the infectious disease allowance, because from 1 January 2023, granting infectious disease allowance requires a decision by the doctor responsible for infectious disease control in the wellbeing services county on absence from work, isolation or quarantine.

“This change is expected to reduce the record level of sickness-related absences due to respiratory tract and COVID-19 infections from the beginning of the year.”

“The basic task of occupational health care is to support employees and allow them to continue working despite their illness, disability and lack of functional capacity. Our mission is to provide assistance in making work arrangements and plan employees’ return to work. Our occupational health-oriented medical care that complies with national guidelines supports and supplements this, but occupational health care services should not be built on it,” Martti concludes.

Remote appointments and digital services play an essential role in occupational health

  • With the pandemic, remote appointments and digital services have also established their position in occupational health.
  • Between January and October 2022, more than a third of occupational health care appointments took place via remote channels and the number of physical appointments went down.
  • This shows that a significant proportion of diseases previously treated at physical appointments can be treated remotely.

*) Sickness-related absence data from January–October 2022.