Inflexible working environment causes sickness absence

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Gun Johansson, a postgraduate at the Swedish Medical University Karolinska Institute, introduces the illness flexibility model to clarify the causes of sickness absence at work. The model assumes that sickness absence is caused by people’s ability and motivation to work. The study shows that the less adaptable a working place is, the higher the rate of sick leave.

The negative consequences of absenteeism have an impact both on the employee and his/her colleagues, who might have to take on the surplus burden, lead certain people to feel compelled to go to work despite being ill and in need of convalescence. Such a heavy pressure on attendance increases the likelihood of a high rate of sickness absence, states the report. 

Low-adjustment latitude, ie few opportunities for people to reduce or in other ways change their work-effort when ill, is increasing women’s absence but do not show any relation with men’s sickness absence and men’s and women’s and sickness attendance, concludes the study. Attendance requirements were also strongly associated with both men’s and women’s sickness absence and sickness attendance. 

Another paper from this study, examining whether Return To Work (RTW) after long-term sickness absence is affected by adjustment latitude, shows an increase in the likelihood to go back to work for both men and women, returning to work part time or full time, with increasing opportunity to adjust. 

If people are given opportunities to adapt their pace of work, their duties and their hours according to their state of health, the chances are greater that they will be able to continue to work instead of having to take time off sick, claims the author. Among those who are still obliged to take sick leave, the chances are greater that they will return to work after a long absence if these possibilities to adapt exist. 

The outcome of this study may affect how people’s working lives can be organised to incorporate ill health and make it easier for those who are ill to remain at work. The model of illness flexibility also appears promising in increasing our understanding of sickness absence, research on sickness being usually described as theoretically undeveloped. The study suggests that future research is required, and should be aimed at theoretical and methodological development of the components as well as future testing of predictions from the model. Testing of the model should notably be directed to different actions taken when ill as the inception of sickness absence, length of absence, RTW, and exclusion from the labour market. 

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