Study looks at women’s sick leave

With women in Sweden twice as likely as men to take long term sick leave, a new study has examined the probable causes.

The demands of contemporary working life appear to have given rise to health hazards for working women, according to author Dr. Helene Sandmark from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute and Örebro University.

Her study – ‘Work and family: associations with long-term sick-listing in Swedish women’ – was published on Thursday in open access journal BMC Public Health.

Problems that contributed to women taking long term sick leave included: inequality in the workplace, a self-reported lack of competence for work tasks, high physical and mental demands at work and insufficient flexibility over their working lives.

“Sweden has succeeded in bringing more women into the workplace than most other countries but we still haven’t solved many of the related problems,” Helene Sandmark told The Local.

Family circumstances were also found to be a contributory factor.

“When we compare women on long term leave with other women we find that they are often in marriages where they are not treated as an equal,” said Sandmark.

Having previously carried out a sort of reverse study, looking at women who never took sick leave, she was able to note some important differences.

“What I found then was that these women didn’t have as many children – one less on average – and that they were in more equal relationships.

“They also had more desirable jobs and greater mobility, switching jobs more often than their counterparts,” she said.

Being in a position where it was possible to change jobs was regarded as crucial.

“In Sweden we have a very big public sector in which more than 80 percent of employees are women.

“It is difficult for them to switch jobs and they have fewer jobs to choose between than men,” she said.

The Swedish welfare system, with its generous allowances for maternity leave and sick leave, was also found to contain a number of pitfalls.

“Sweden has very family-friendly policies, with both women and men able to stay home with their children, sometimes for years.

“But because women use up most of the available parental leave, they often find themselves trapped after losing their connection to the world of work,” said Sandmark.

Among younger women, particularly those working in the health and childcare sectors, workplace bullying often led to long term sick leave.

Of the 283 women on long term sick leave who took part in the study, 93 percent wished to return to the labour market. Over half of the women keen to get back to work said they would be willing to work on a part time basis.

Although the number of sick leave days claimed by the women ranged from 90 to 381, almost three quarters believed they would return to work within two years.

But Helene Sandmark felt that many more research projects of this kind would be necessary before the problems could be fully understood.

“Since Swedish women are obviously not the sickest in the world, we need to take a holistic approach towards finding solutions to these problems,” she said.