Is Your Employee Sick--Or Taking a "Mental Health" Day?

Last Updated Apr 5, 2011 11:09 AM EDT

Is work making you or your colleague sick? A group of Swedish researchers have shown that someone facing extreme workplace stress, having trouble in their relationship with their boss, or having trouble getting along with co-workers is more likely to take sick leave.

The researchers analyzed 546 instances of sick leaves taken by 432 Swedish workers at six different workplaces. In the first day or two of sick leave, the researchers telephoned the people who had called in sick and asked them about several different aspects of their work situation. The findings:
  • People who called in sick were more likely to have experienced psycho-social problems at work in the past few days than people who did not.
  • The most common psycho-social problem reported by the people who had called in sick was a 'very stressful work situation, indicated by more tasks, fewer staff, or a larger field of responsibility than usual.'
  • Problems in one's relationships with colleagues and bosses were also associated with a higher incidence of sick leave.
  • Other stressors, such as harassment, discrimination, and being assigned 'unpleasant tasks' were not associated with an increased incidence of sick leave.
Are these workers physically sick or just trying to cope?
One explanation for the findings is that employees, when faced with a very stressful work situation, either consciously or unconsciously used the sick time for a 'mental health day' so they could face their jobs relatively refreshed after sick leave. It could be that stressors such as harassment and being assigned unpleasant tasks did not encourage people to call in sick because a few days' reprieve might not make much difference-the tasks or the discrimination would still be there when the worker returned.

Another explanation is that those in highly stressful jobs are more likely to get sick. This wouldn't be the first study to find a correlation between stress, the immune system, and illness. The most common reasons workers called in sick were colds, flu, and headaches.

Has stress from your job made you sick?

RELATED Photo courtesy flickr user russelljsmith
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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