Aim: This study assesses the predictive ability of the full Work Ability Index (WAI) as well as its individual items in the general population.
Methods: The Work, Health and Retirement Study (WHRS) is a stratified random national sample of 25-75-year-olds living in Sweden in 2000 that received a postal questionnaire ( n = 6637, response rate = 53%). Current and subsequent sickness absence was obtained from registers. The ability of the WAI to predict long-term sickness absence (LTSA; ⩾ 90 consecutive days) during a period of four years was analysed by logistic regression, from which the Area Under the Receiver Operating Characteristic curve (AUC) was computed.
Results: There were 313 incident LTSA cases among 1786 employed individuals. The full WAI had acceptable ability to predict LTSA during the 4-year follow-up (AUC = 0.79; 95% CI 0.76 to 0.82). Individual items were less stable in their predictive ability. However, three of the individual items: current work ability compared with lifetime best, estimated work impairment due to diseases, and number of diagnosed current diseases, exceeded AUC > 0.70. Excluding the WAI item on number of days on sickness absence did not result in an inferior predictive ability of the WAI.
Conclusions: The full WAI has acceptable predictive validity, and is superior to its individual items. For public health surveys, three items may be suitable proxies of the full WAI; current work ability compared with lifetime best, estimated work impairment due to diseases, and number of current diseases diagnosed by a physician.
Keywords: Self-assessment; WAI; absenteeism; discriminative ability; public health; sick leave; sickness absence; work capacity evaluation.