Survey finds that many employees go to work despite sickness

Recent results of the Austrian Employee Health Monitor indicate that 42% of Austrian employees go to work even if they are ill. Organised labour concludes that a growing number of employees are not taking sick leave for fear of losing their job. The health implications of such behaviour include a longer period of illness, more severe relapses, as well as subsequent health complications.

About the study

On 30 November 2009, the Chamber of Labour of the province of Upper Austria (Arbeiterkammer Oberösterreich, AK OÖ) and the Austrian Institute for Empirical Social Studies (Institut für Empirische Sozialforschung, IFES) presented the results of the Austrian Employee Health Monitor (Arbeitsgesundheitsmonitor). The AK OÖ and IFES in close cooperation with a private doctors’ association and the Medical University of Graz (Medizinische Universität Graz) developed the health monitor.

Methodology

For the purpose of the study, a representative sample of 7,800 employees, including holders of so-called ‘free service contracts’ (AT0404202N), as well as unemployed people were interviewed during the period 2008–2009. The interviews were conducted face-to-face in the private households of the respective interviewees. According to the authors, the study is one of the most elaborate and encompassing surveys in the field of health and work – even by international standards.

Main findings

Overall, some 42% of the employees interviewed indicate that they have gone to work at least once during the recent six months even if they were ill and it would have been advisable for medical reasons to stay at home. Women do so slightly more frequently (43%) compared with men (40%). Sectors of activity where employees tend to go to work more often despite illness comprise healthcare (59%), transport (51%), commerce (50%), industry and small-scale craft production (48%) as well as construction (43%). The most prominent reasons why employees go to work despite sickness are as follows: a sense of obligation towards the employer and work (58%); unfinished work and tasks (37%); the lack of any substitute (31%); and the fear of possible consequences (14%). The health implications of such behaviour include a longer period of illness (in 45% of cases), more severe relapses (35%), as well as subsequent health complications (25%). Moreover, 37% of the interviewees state that they lacked concentration and were inefficient when working in spite of sickness.

The monitor also reveals the impact of the various forms of workload on the employees’ health. The study pays particular attention to the employees’ personal relationship with their superiors and colleagues. For instance, problems with the immediate superior tend to significantly increase the risk of developing a series of diseases, such as hypertension, digestive problems and back complaints.

Decline in sickness absence

Statistical data on levels of sickness absence among the country’s employees indicate that, over a longer term, the average annual duration of sick leave fell from more than 15 days in 1990 to about 12 days in 2008. Organised labour has always attributed this decline in sickness absence to deteriorating labour market conditions and the growing fear of employees that they could lose their job (AT0402201N). However, a 2007 study (in Austrian, 1.17Mb PDF) conducted by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (Wirtschaftsforschungsinstitut, WIFO) finds that this is only partly true. In fact, a multiplicity of factors determine the frequency of sickness absence, such as demographic developments, the proportion of older and manual workers within the country’s workforce, as well as unemployment rates and the frequency of occupational accidents.

Nevertheless, the recent Austrian Employee Health Monitor corroborates the hypothesis of a direct correlation between a bad working climate and the frequency of health problems. Therefore, organised labour are calling on employers to relieve their employees from permanent time pressure and situations of mobbing, which are dangerous to health. Moreover, the trade unions deplore the fact that an allegedly growing number of employers would put pressure on their employees to go to work even if they are ill – a view that is strictly denied by business organisations.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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