Background: Few studies have investigated occupational groups reporting low rates of sickness absence because of an assumption that these rates indicate low morbidity. This is inconsistent with the view that sickness absence, which may be caused by social and psychological rather than medical factors, does not equate with morbidity. This paper investigates rates of sickness absence and factors influencing decisions not to take sick leave among doctors and a comparative professional group.
Methods: A postal survey was sent to 670 general practitioners (GPs), 669 hospital doctors and 400 company 'fee earners'. Qualitative interviews were conducted with 64 doctors reporting an illness lasting one month or more in the last three years.
Results: Self-reported health status was similar for both groups but GPs reported higher levels of occupational stress. However, doctors were significantly less likely to report short periods of sick leave in the previous year. Over 80 per cent of all respondents had 'worked through' illness, citing cultural and organizational factors behind their decision not to take sick leave. Barriers to sick leave among doctors included the difficulty of arranging cover and attitudes to their own health.
Conclusions: Considerable emphasis has been given to the role of social factors in contributing to rates of sickness absence. These may also contribute to the decision not to take sick leave, resulting in possible inappropriate non-use. Measures to encourage and enable doctors to take sick leave might improve the management of their own health.