Measures to limit work absence no help
Sick leave rates do not drop when employers take measures to help older employees or employees with health problems.
A new analysis shows that in most industries, there is no detectable effect from measures to improve the health of workers over age 50.
The measures are meant to prevent injury and burnout. The goal is to keep older workers from leaving the workplace, either because of sick leave, early retirement or disability pension.
The study was composed of more than 700 Norwegian companies of varying sizes, and totalled more than 33,000 employees. Tove Midtsundstad and Roy A. Nielsen from the Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research in Oslo conducted the research.
Some of the measures typically used by employers to help workers include reduced working hours, technical aids, change in job position or responsibilities, exercise and physical therapy.
The study shows that six out of ten companies had taken such measures - but that the measures mostly did not have the desired effect.
The researchers did find exceptions in public administration employees, who are typically office workers.
Preventive measures can reduce absence of more than 16 days by 10 percent in this group, according to Midtsundstad and Nielsen.
Employees who are absent for more than 16 days are entitled to a sickness benefit, which is in turn reported to Statistics Norway (SSB). These figures have been available to the researchers. Less data is available on shorter absences.
A variety of causes
The rates of sick leave in Norway have dropped in recent years, including among older workers.
Companies that implemented measures saw a larger drop in sick leave, the researchers said, but added that the effect could not be attributed to the measures.
Instead, the change in sick leave could be explained by the size of the business and market competition. Large firms in general have more sick leave, while it is lower in industries where the competition is intense.
Midtsundstad emphasizes that there are many factors involved in determining sick leave rates. Very little is known about the effects of policies on work absence and health problems.
But the researchers believe that the decline in sick leave rates among public administrations employees over 50 years of age can be explained by policies instituted by the employer.
Different types of work
The 10 percent reduction among government office workers is related to the type of work, because it is easier for employers to find effective measures.
"If you have back problems, it is easier to make adjustments in working hours or positions in an office job, compared with a manual job in the industry," Midtsundstad said.
"Suitable arrangements could be made for more people, simply because it is easier. For a person with non-manual work it will usually be easier to continue on the job, even if that person has some health problems," she added.
The conclusions are based on a two-year study in eight workplaces in industry and health care, public administration and engineering companies.
The analysis shows that absence is highest in factories, on construction sites and in health and social services.
Room for flexibility?
Work absences among public sector office workers is declining. But the effects of measures by the employer are hard to detect in other industries, such as manufacturing, retail, health care and construction.
Sick leave rates tend to be higher in jobs that require a lot of customer contact, or that have inflexible working hours or location.
But it's not just the type of job that determines the amount of sick leave. The employee also matters.
"Low education, high age, disability and poor health increase the risk," says Nielsen.
Have not studied individual measures
The researchers have not examined individual measures. Therefore, they can not say whether one type of measure works better than another.
But they have studied whether having any measures at all for people with health problems and reduced work capacity, has an effect.
Nielsen points out that although the measures do not reduce absence directly, they might contribute to well-being, less short-term absence and early retirement. However, that remains to be investigated.
The Agreement on Inclusive Working Conditions (IA) is intended to reduce work absence among other goals.
However, the study from Fafo suggests that being an IA workplace does not influence absence rates.
In fact, employees from IA workplaces have a higher risk of taking sick leave.
Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no
Translated by: Lars Nygaard
- Tove I. Midtsundstad and Roy A. Nielsen: Do work-place initiated Measures reduce sickness absence? Preventive Measures and sickness absence among older workers in Norway Scand J Public Health. November, 2013 1403494813510791 summary.