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Are sickness absence frequencies in the study of EU countries underestimates?
  1. M Kivimäki1,
  2. J Vahtera1,
  3. J Head1,
  4. J E Ferrie1
  1. 1Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki, PO Box 9, Helsinki FIN-00014, Finland; mika.kivimakittl.fi

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    The paper by Gimeno et al provides a comparison of sickness absence between 15 European Union (EU) countries.1 According to this study, 14.5% of employees were absent at least one day in the past 12 months by an accident at work, by health problems caused by the work, or by other health problems. For Finnish employees, for instance, this percentage was 24%, the highest among the 15 EU countries; in the UK it was 11.7%.

    These figures are much lower than those reported previously. A population based survey of Finnish employed workforce aged 25–64 carried out in 2000 found that 45% of employees took sickness absence during the past six months.2 Correspondingly, a population based survey of 5400 British adults aged 15–64 reported that 30% of working adults took time off work in the past year because of their health or feelings.3

    Three large cohort studies from Finland and the UK have used absence records instead of self-reports. In 2000, 58% of 77 850 municipal employees participating in the 10 town study4 took at least one sickness absence day; the same percentage was obtained in the Hospital Personnel Study5 for 30 864 hospital workers aged 15–65. In the Whitehall II study6 of over 10 000 British civil servants aged 35–55, 57% of men and 76% of women recorded sick leave 12 months prior to the study entry in 1985–88.

    Based on these national studies, we suspect that the figures presented by Gimeno et al are underestimates of actual absence frequency in the EU countries. Data on sickness absence were derived from face-to-face interviews that were carried out at the participant’s home, a rarely applied assessment strategy for sickness absence. It is possible that the wording of the question led people to report sickness absence only when they believed it to be work related. The authors note that low response rates in some countries and healthy worker effect are potential sources of bias.

    We feel that the data presented by Gimeno et al are far too preliminary to be the basis of any policy at this stage or of conclusions regarding differences in absence frequency between nations. We fully agree with their recommendation for further research on sickness absence in EU countries.

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