Calling in Sick - When Anxious or Depressed

Anxiety and depression increase likelihood of employees to use sick leave

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many workers need to take a "mental health day" now and then. But how much of a person's mental health influences their long-term use of sick leave?

A group of researchers sought to find out. Past studies have shown a link between using sick days and having a mental health disorder.

But a recent study has distinguished which conditions are most likely to result in using more sick time for work.

"Seek help for your anxiety or depression - call a therapist."

The study, led by Ann Kristin Knudsen, a PhD student at the University of Bergen and the Division of Mental Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, aimed to find out the extent to which depression and anxiety influenced how much sick leave people took.

The researchers followed 13,436 participants enrolled in the Hordaland Health Study for about six years.

Each participant's mental health was assessed with an anxiety and depression tool at the beginning of the study, and the researchers gathered data on the number of sick leave days over 16 that participants took.

The researchers found that having a common mental disorder made it more likely that someone would take an extended absence (more than 3 months) from work and that they would repeatedly use sick days.

Those with depression and anxiety both were most likely to use sick leave time, but anxiety appeared to play a bigger part in this increased risk.

One interesting finding of the study was that the link between mental health disorders and taking sick leave was lessened when the researchers accounted for those participants who felt physical pain.

But since many depressed and/or anxious people frequently feel physical pain, there may not have been enough people with depression or anxiety not feeling pain to adequately determine whether accounting for pain really changed the underlying association between sick leave and mental health.

"Surprisingly, we found that anxiety alone is a stronger risk factor for prolonged and frequent sick leave than depression alone," said Knudsen. "Further, anxiety seems to be a relatively stable risk factor for sick leave, as we found an increased risk of sickness absence up to six years after the anxiety level was assessed."

The greater likelihood of using sick leave when a person has a mental health condition was mild, but it was significant enough for the researchers to establish that the link was more than coincidence.

The study was published July 7 in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. The research was supported by the Norwegian National Health Screening Service, the University of Bergen, the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 3, 2012
Last Updated:
March 26, 2013