Feb. 5, 2008 -- More minor health problems and generally poorer working conditions may be to blame for a Finnish study's findings that women are about 50 percent more likely to take a few sick days off from work compared to their male counterparts.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland studied periods of sick leave among 5,470 female and 1,464 male municipal workers between 2002 and 2005. The employees, all of whom were between 40 and 60 years old, were also asked about their working lives and general health.
Results showed that female employees reported more physical health problems, physical work demands, and work fatigue than male employees.
Moreover, women were 46 percent more likely than men to call in sick from work for a few days. However, researchers found no statistically significant gender difference in the amount of long-term sick leave taken from work.
According to Dr. Mikko Laaksonen, primary study investigator and professor in the department of public health at the University of Helsinki, these gender differences in sick leave from work can at least partially be explained by more minor health problems and poorer working conditions among female employees.
"Because women reported more health problems and poor working conditions than men, I think those factors can explain the differences in absences from work due to sickness," said Laaksonen.
"Some may ask whether this is due to the women actually having more health problems or just reacting differently to such problems, but we saw no differences in the reactions to illness among men and women. So women do not seem to be more vulnerable to health and work related problems."
Although researchers asked the study participants about family-related factors which might cause an employee to take short-term sick leave from work, they found that the effects of family-related factors on sickness absence from work were minimal. After adjusting for family-related factors, self-reported chronic disease, and working conditions, researchers found that women were still about one-third more likely to take short-term sick leave from work which was certified by a doctor.
"It's hard to give a take home message for this study, but there a few things that you cannot take away from it," explained Laaksonen. "Because our doesn't show that working conditions would be an important factor or home-related problems would play an important role in affecting the number of sick days a person takes from work."
But despite the fact that the researchers wrote in the study's report that there were "no gender differences" in responsiveness to health problems and family-related factors had only a "minimal effect" on sickness absence from work, many experts believe these two factors could at least partially explain gender differences in the amount of sick days taken from work in the U.S. ??------------------??
Many experts noted that the study's findings were difficult to translate over to the U.S., where a vastly different social, economic, and healthcare environment exists. "I don't know if this is relevant to the U.S.A., but my impression is that it is not relevant here," said Dr. Ira Rubin, a pediatrician at Naperville Pediatric Associates in Naperville, Ill.
Rubin noted that because Finland has a public healthcare system, the study's participants were more likely to see a doctor than people in the U.S. since the visit poses no financial burden.
"In addition, these are city workers, and the mindset of a civil worker is probably different and the average worker here in the U.S.," Rubin added.
However, a number of doctors believe the study's overall finding that women take more short-term sick leave than men is true in the U.S., though the reasons for this gender difference might be quite different here than in Finland.
"This is consistent with my experience," said Dr. Randall Longenecker, assistant dean for rural medical education at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. But despite the study's finding that women and men react no differently to illness, Longenecker believes this is one of the primary reasons women take more sick days from work than men in the U.S.
"I suspect it is related to the same reason that women are more likely to seek medical care for illness," Longenecker said. "In our culture, men are much more likely to use denial as a defense mechanism generally, and are less likely to acknowledge illness specifically."
But perhaps the most culturally inconsistent finding of the study was that family-related issues failed to explain the excess of work absences among female workers.
Dr. Laura Wilwerding, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said she is a typical, full-time working mother. As a pediatrician with four children, she has never once called in sick for an acute illness in the 10 years she has been working at the University of Nebraska.
"I come to work sick and wear a mask, often taking care of patients less ill than myself," Wilwerding explained.
This may seem contradictory to the study's findings that women take more short-term sick leave from work than men. However, Wilwerding did note that she takes leave from work for family-related issues: Wilwerding said she took 10 days off of work to be home with her two-year-old daughter when she was first adopted from Korea.
According to Wilwerding, family-related factors are often at the root of the gender differences in the number of sick days taken off from work, at least in the U.S.
"I think the major reason women take more sick leave is not because of just themselves, but because they are generally the primary caregivers for their children and extended family," said Wilwerding. "In addition, women who work 'outside' the home also do equal amounts of work 'inside' the home. Although men are more apt to help around the house…the mom is almost always the coordinator of all events."
"With this comes great stress, which of course will result in more frequent minor illnesses," Wilwerding added.
According to data from the U.S. Labor Department released last November, both married and unmarried women with children report a higher rate of absences from work than those without children. However, Wilwerding believes this statistic provides more evidence for the need to provide working mothers with greater support in the workplace.
"As a society, we need to support our mothers, provide more flexible work schedules to accommodate the necessary activities of motherhood, provide decent child care, fair wages, comprehensive health care and adequate paid leave," Wilwerding said.