October 4, 2008

Longer Sick Leaves Tied To Premature Deaths

British researchers reported Friday that employees who take extended sick leave for illnesses, even for common conditions like flu, are far more likely to die before those who do not.

The study involved healthy government workers, and suggested that longer sick leaves for both minor and major illnesses could indicate serious health problems down the road.

"It is not just down to serious medical conditions but it seems this relationship is seen across a wide range of common health problems," Jenny Head, the study's leader and a statistician at University College London, told Reuters.

"This appears to be a good early marker for people going on to develop more long-term serious illnesses."

The study may help doctors and employers identify those at higher risk of serious illness early on and long before they have symptoms, Head said.

The researchers examined sickness records of 6,478 British civil servants between 1985 and 1988, and then followed up which had died through 2004.

The data showed that those who took more than seven days sick leave were more likely to die. Additionally, those who took long absences from work one or more times during a three year period were 66 percent more likely to die, according to Head.

"We also saw that relationship in people who were in good health at the beginning of the study," she said during a telephone interview with Reuters.

While it's not surprising that people off for serious conditions or surgery would face increased odds of premature death, the findings also applied to those who had called in sick for minor complaints such as colds and flu.

About half the deaths were caused by cancer, while another 25 percent were due to heart problems. The researches did not examine possible explanations for the link between dying early and long sick leave.

Psychiatric problems such as depression increased the probability of cancer-related deaths by two-and-a-half times, while sick leave due to arthritis or back pain also increased the premature death risk.

The study was reported in the British Medical Journal.


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