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Impact of common mental disorders on sickness absence in an occupational cohort study
  1. Stephen A Stansfeld1,
  2. Rebecca Fuhrer2,
  3. Jenny Head3
  1. 1Centre for Psychiatry, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  3. 3Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London Medical School, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Stephen Stansfeld, Centre for Psychiatry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Old Anatomy Building, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6BQ, UK; s.a.stansfeld{at}


Objectives Common mental disorders are associated with impaired functioning and sickness absence. We examine whether sub-clinical as well as clinical psychiatric morbidity predict long spells of sickness absence for both psychiatric and non-psychiatric illness. We also examine whether recent common mental disorders and those present on two occasions have a stronger association with sickness absence than less recent and single episodes of disorder.

Methods Common mental disorders measured by the General Health Questionnaire were linked with long spells of sickness absence in 5104 civil servants from the longitudinal Whitehall II Study. Negative binomial models were used to estimate rate ratios for long spells of sickness absence with and without a psychiatric diagnosis (mean follow-up 5.3 years).

Results Clinical but not sub-threshold common mental disorders were associated with increased risk of long spells of psychiatric sickness absence for men, but not for women, after adjusting for covariates (rate ratios (RR) 1.67, 95% CI 1.13 to 2.46). Risk of psychiatric sickness absence was associated with recent common mental disorders (RR 2.08, 95% CI 1.29 to 3.35) and disorder present on two occasions (RR 1.65, 95% CI 0.98 to 2.71) for men only. Common mental disorders were not associated with increased risk of non-psychiatric sickness absence after adjustment for covariates.

Conclusions Identification and treatment of common mental disorders may reduce the economic burden of long term psychiatric sickness absence. Our results suggest that public health and clinical services should focus on the identification of workers with elevated mental health symptoms. Studies are needed of the efficacy of early identification and management of mental health symptoms for the prevention of long spells of sickness absence.

  • Epidemiology
  • mental health
  • occupational health practice
  • fitness for work
  • sickness absence

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  • Rebecca Fuhrer holds the Canada Research Chair in Psychosocial Epidemiology.

  • Funding The work presented in this paper was supported by a grant from the Department of Health (grant number 121/5044). The Whitehall II study has been supported by grants from the Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, Health and Safety Executive and Department of Health; the US National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (HL36310), National Institute on Ageing (AG13196) and Agency for Health Care Policy Research (HS06516); and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation Research Networks on Successful Midlife Development and Socio-economic Status and Health.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval Ethics approval for the Whitehall II study was obtained from the University College London Medical School committee on the ethics of human research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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