LONDON (Reuters) - Employees off sick for long periods -- even for common conditions like flu -- are far more likely to die before their co-workers who do not take such leave, researchers said on Friday.
The study of government workers included people who were healthy to start with and suggested extended sick leave for minor ailments as well as more major ones could point to serious health problems down the road.
"It is not just down to serious medical conditions but it seems this relationship is seen across a wide range of common health problems," said Jenny Head, a statistician at University College London who led the study.
"This appears to be a good early marker for people going on to develop more long-term serious illnesses."
The results could help doctors and employers identify people at higher risk of serious illness early on and long before they have symptoms, Head added.
The report in the British Medical Journal looked at sickness records of 6,478 British civil servants between 1985 and 1988 and then followed up which men and women died through 2004.
People who were off sick more than seven days were more likely to die, they found. People who took one or more long absence in three years were 66 percent more likely to die, Head said in a telephone interview.
"We also saw that relationship in people who were in good health at the beginning of the study," she added.
While it would make sense that people off for surgery or circulatory problems would face increased odds of dying early, the findings extended to people who had called in sick for minor complaints such as coughs and colds and flu.
Cancer caused about half of the deaths and heart problems another 25 percent, but the researches did not look at possible mechanisms to explain the link between dying early and long sick spells.
Psychiatric problems such as depression boosted the chances of a cancer-related death by two-and-a-half times, and sick days due to problems such as back pain or arthritis also increased the premature death risk.
Reporting by Michael Kahn; editing by Maggie Fox and Philippa Fletcher