Psychological treatments for return to work in individuals on sickness absence due to common mental disorders or musculoskeletal disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized-controlled trials

Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2019 Apr;92(3):273-293. doi: 10.1007/s00420-018-1380-x. Epub 2018 Nov 24.


Purpose: Common mental disorders (CMDs) and musculoskeletal disorders are highly prevalent in the population and cause significant distress and disability, and high costs to society. The main objective of this systematic review and meta-analysis was to examine the outcome and comparative effectiveness of psychological interventions in reducing sickness absence (SA) due to CMDs or musculoskeletal disorders, compared to a waitlist control group, usual care or another clinical intervention.

Methods: We reviewed 3515 abstracts of randomized controlled trials published from 1998 to 2017. Of these, 30 studies were included in the analysis.

Results: The psychological interventions were overall more effective than treatment as usual in reducing SA (small effect sizes), but not compared to other clinical interventions. Results were similar for studies on CMDs and musculoskeletal pain. A few significant moderating effects were found for treatment-specific variables. However, these were difficult to interpret as they pointed in different directions.

Conclusion: There was a small but significant effect of psychological treatments in reducing SA. We identified areas of improvement such as methodological problems among the included studies and failure to specifically address RTW in the interventions that were evaluated. Clinical implications of the findings, and ways of improving methodological rigour of future studies are discussed.

Keywords: Common mental disorders; Meta-analysis; Musculoskeletal disorders; Psychological treatment; Return to work.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Middle Aged
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / therapy*
  • Psychotherapy*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Return to Work / psychology*
  • Sick Leave