Extended Work Absences May Signal Risk of Death

Oct. 4 -- FRIDAY, Oct. 3 (HealthDay News) -- If you take extended sick days from work, you may be at higher risk of dying sooner than your office colleagues, a new study suggests.

Taking extended sick leave more than once in three years, particularly if the absence is because of surgery or circulatory or psychiatric problems, is a red flag, according to the report, published online Oct. 2 in the British Medical Journal. In fact, deaths increased as the medically certified absence rates (stretches of more than seven days) increased, according to the research by a team at University College London.

The study of absence records for 6,478 British civil servants between 1985 and 1988 showed that people who had one or more medically certified absences in three years had a 66 percent increased risk of premature death compared to those with no such absence.

Workers who were out because of circulatory disease were four times more likely to die prematurely than their colleagues with no absences. Those absent because of psychiatric illnesses were nearly twice as likely to die prematurely, while workers needing an operation were more than twice as likely to die early.

Employees taking sick leave because of a musculoskeletal condition were an exception to the findings. They were at no more risk of premature death than their colleagues who took no extended leaves.

One interesting finding was that workers who had one or more extended absences because of a psychiatric diagnosis also had a two-and-a-half-fold increase in cancer-related deaths.

In an accompanying editorial, Johannes Anema and Allard van der Beek of the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, suggested that such links could provide general practitioners with a useful biopsychosocial tool to identify workers with an increased risk of serious illness or risk of death. They wrote it might also help companies target employees with work-related health problems -- such as stress and high job demands -- for assistance from occupational physicians.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about work stress.

SOURCE: BMJ, news release, Oct. 3, 2008