From man to man in Sweden. (Photo: Colourbox)

Workmates affect your sick leaves

Swedes have found that colleagues’ leaves of absence due to illnesses can impact the number of days you are off sick. But an experiment in Norway shows that absenteeism can be reduced when confidence in employees is coupled with controls.

A new evaluation of Swedish statistics shows how men and women react to their colleagues’ sick leaves.

Researchers discovered that women and men are equally influenced by their workmates, but men’s leaves of absences due to sickness were affected by the leaves of their male colleagues, while women were affected likewise by their female colleagues.

The new results are based on statistics from an extensive research project from Gothenburg in the late 1980s.

Liberalised rules led to increased absences

In 1988 a wide-scale experiment was carried out in Sweden’s second largest city. The populace was split into two groups, an experimental group and a control group.

Gothenburg, where the population was split into two groups. (Photo: Colourbox)

The purpose was to see whether demands for a doctor’s certificate verifying sickness had an effect on absenteeism.

In the late 1980s Swedes could take seven days off work per year in sick leaves without verifications from a doctor. They were guaranteed 90 percent of normal pay during these days, and some union members also had contracts which gave coverage for the remaining 10 percent.

In the experimental group the regulations were made more altruistic. This half of the city’s work force was allowed to take two weeks off per year due to sickness without medical documentation.

This relaxation of demands led to a rise in absences from work.

When the researchers looked at the gender differences within the experimental group, they saw that men’s sick leaves increased nearly twice as much as women’s.

Back to the 80s

Researchers behind the study think the statistics gathered back in the 1980s can still be useful because they were so extensive and detailed.

Citizens of Gothenburg were randomly split into groups based on dates of birth so the effect of the liberalisation of demands for doctors’ certificates could be compared with the control group within individual places of work.

The same experiment was also carried out in rural Jämtland County in 1988. The results were equivalent to those in Gothenburg, even though these areas quite different.  Arizo Karimi, a co-author of the recent study titled “Gender differences in shirking: monitoring or social preferences?”, thinks this is a strong indicator that the results are still viable today.

Senior Researcher Arnstein Mykletun at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI) is also of the opinion that the study is not past its shelf life.

“Although these are old figures, I don’t think that has any effect on the result. These are psychological mechanisms being studied, and these are stable.”

Absences also increased in the control group

Even in the control group, whose absences from work were monitored as stringently as before, a rise in what some might call shirking was noticed. 

“We interpret the rise in the control group’s absences as the result of social interaction effects,” says Arizo Karimi.

In other words, when some of the workmates on the job took part in the trial liberalisation, others who were excluded were affected and followed suit. The higher rate of absences in the experimental group transferred over to the control group.

“The relaxed demands on certification among their colleagues were probably viewed as unjust, which led to an increase in absences among the remaining employees,” says Karimi.

Opposite effect in Mandal

In the town of Mandal Norway a scheme has been running since 2008 called the Confidence Project. Municipal employees are given the right to take sick leaves without doctors’ certificates according to need, for up to a year at a time – with full pay. But an intensive and systematic routine was established for following up these employees. 

Mykletun of FHI has assisted in the evaluation of the Norwegian project. The average amount of leaves due to sickness in Mandal was 25 percent lower than in 29 control municipalities in the years after the Confidence Project was initiated.

The results were totally contrary to the ones in Gothenburg.

A difference between the studies in Mandal and Gothenburg was that the employees in Sweden were not monitored or followed up simultaneously with their gains of extended rights to stay home from work without seeing a doctor.

Mykletun maintains that the Mandal experiment does not testify to a direct correlation between receiving confidence – sick leaves based on the honour code, so to speak – and less shirking.

“We cannot rule out that the increased right to take leaves in Mandal could have led to more absenteeism if it had not been simultaneously linked to more rigorous follow-ups of the persons taking sick leaves,” says Mykletun.

“Likewise, it’s uncertain whether the Municipality of Mandal could have initiated the system for following up the employees without simultaneously expanding their right to take sick leaves.”

Mykletun thinks the confidence given to the employees was a key aspect of the project.

“Confidence and dialogue have been essential for the project in Mandal. If monitoring had been intensified without providing more confidence, we don’t know how the system would have been received,” says Mykletun.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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