Sick but at work? Study finds it's worse in the long-run

Thu Jun 11, 2009 8:14am EDT
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SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Sick but still going to work? You'll probably end up taking more sick days in the future than colleagues who stay at home when unwell, according to a Swedish study.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm found that employees who often go to work feeling sick -- termed "sickness presenteeism" -- have higher rates of future work absences due to illness.

Gunnar Bergstrom, who led the study, said these findings suggest that measures attempting to decrease work absences could inadvertently have the opposite effect and show that taking sick-leave when appropriate benefited the workplace.

"Discouraging workers from staying home when they are sick could lead to increased sickness presenteeism, and thus inadvertently increase sick leave," Bergstrom said in a statement.

"This underscores the importance of sickness presenteeism in the evaluations of such interventions and considering the effects from a long-term perspective."

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, was based on research involving two groups of workers -- about 3,750 public sector employees who were mainly female, and 2,500 private-sector employees who were mainly male. In the first year of the study, 19 percent of public sector workers and 13 percent of private sector workers had more than five "sickness presenteeism" days.

For these workers, the risk of having more than 30 days of sickness absenteeism the following year was 40 to 50 percent higher that for employees who had less days sick in the office, after adjustment for other factors.

Bergstrom said recent studies have shown that sickness presenteeism is common, with most employees saying they go to work sick at least sometimes.

Poor health is one likely risk factor for sickness presenteeism, but other job-related and personal factors could also play a role, according to the researchers.

(Writing by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy)