Explaining the social gradient in sickness absence: a study of a general working population in Sweden

BMC Public Health. 2013 Jun 5:13:545. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-545.


Background: Some previous studies have proposed potential explanatory factors for the social gradient in sickness absence. Yet, this research area is still in its infancy and in order to comprise the full range of socioeconomic positions there is a need for studies conducted on random population samples. The main aim of the present study was to investigate if somatic and mental symptoms, mental wellbeing, job strain, and physical work environment could explain the association between low socioeconomic position and belonging to a sample of new cases of sick-listed employees.

Methods: This study was conducted on one random working population sample (n = 2763) and one sample of newly sick-listed cases of employees (n = 3044), drawn from the same random general population in western Sweden. Explanatory factors were self-rated 'Somatic and mental symptoms', 'Mental well-being', 'job strain', and 'physical work conditions' (i.e. heavy lifting and awkward work postures). Multiple logistic regression analyses were used.

Results: Somatic and mental symptoms, mental well-being, and job strain, could not explain the association between socioeconomic position and sickness absence in both women and men. However, physical work conditions explained the total association in women and much of this association in men. In men the gradient between Non-skilled manual OR 1.76 (1.24;2.48) and Skilled manual OR 1.59 (1.10;2.20), both in relation to Higher non-manual, remained unexplained.

Conclusions: The present study strengthens the scientific evidence that social differences in physical work conditions seem to comprise a key element of the social gradient in sickness absence, particularly in women. Future studies should try to identify further predictors for this gradient in men.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Absenteeism*
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Sick Leave*
  • Social Class
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Sweden / epidemiology
  • Work / statistics & numerical data*
  • Workplace
  • Young Adult