Background: Sickness absence increases with lower socioeconomic status. However, it is not well known how this relation depends on specific aspects of sickness absence or the degree to which socioeconomic differences in sickness absence may be explained by other factors.The purpose of the study was to examine differences in sickness absence among occupational groups in a large general hospital; how they depend on combinations of frequency and duration of sickness absence spells; and if they could be explained by self-reported general health, personal factors and work factors.
Methods: The design is a 1-year prospective cohort study of 2331 hospital employees. Baseline information include job title, work unit, perceived general health, work factors and personal factors recorded from hospital administrative files or by questionnaire (response rate 84%). Sickness absence during follow-up was divided into short (1-3 days), medium (4-14 days) and long (>14 days) spells, and into no absence, "normal" absence (1-3 absences of certain durations) and "abnormal" absence (any other absence than "normal"). Socioeconomic status was assessed by job titles grouped in six occupational groups by level of education (from doctors to cleaners/porters). Effects of occupational group on sickness absence were adjusted for significant effects of age, gender, general health, personal factors and work factors. We used Poisson or logistic regression analysis to estimate the effects of model covariates (rate ratios (RR) or odds ratios (OR)) and their 95% confidence intervals (CI).
Results: With a few exceptions sickness absence increased with decreasing socioeconomic status. However, the social gradient was quite different for different types of sickness absence. The gradient was strong for medium spells and "abnormal" absence, and weak for all spells, short spells, long spells and "normal" absence. For cleaners compared to doctors the adjusted risk estimates increased 4.2 (95% CI 2.8-6.2) and 7.4 (95% CI 3.3-16) times for medium spells and "abnormal" absence, respectively, while the similar changes varied from 0.79 to 2.8 for the other absence outcomes. General health explained some of the social gradient. Work factors and personal factors did not.
Conclusions: The social gradient in sickness absence was different for absences of different duration and patterns. It was strongest for absences of medium length and "abnormal" absence. The social gradient was not explained by other factors.