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Logo of bmcphBioMed Centralsearchsubmit a manuscriptregisterthis articleBMC Public Health
BMC Public Health. 2012; 12: 163.
Published online 2012 March 7. doi:  10.1186/1471-2458-12-163
PMCID: PMC3311564

Can work ability explain the social gradient in sickness absence: a study of a general population in Sweden



Understanding the reasons for the social gradient in sickness absence might provide an opportunity to reduce the general rates of sickness absence. The complete explanation for this social gradient still remains unclear and there is a need for studies using randomized working population samples. The main aim of the present study was to investigate if self-reported work ability could explain the association between low socioeconomic position and belonging to a sample of new cases of sick-listed employees.


The two study samples consisted of a randomized working population (n = 2,763) and a sample of new cases of sick-listed employees (n = 3,044), 19-64 years old. Both samples were drawn from the same randomized general population. Socioeconomic status was measured with occupational position and physical and mental work ability was measured with two items extracted from the work ability index.


There was an association between lower socioeconomic status and belonging to the sick-listed sample among both women and men. In men the crude Odds ratios increased for each downwards step in socioeconomic status, OR 1.32 (95% CI 0.98-1.78), OR 1.53 (1.05-2.24), OR 2.80 (2.11-3.72), and OR 2.98 (2.27-3.90). Among women this gradient was not as pronounced. Physical work ability constituted the strongest explanatory factor explaining the total association between socioeconomic status and being sick-listed in women. However, among men, the association between skilled non-manual, OR 2.07 (1.54-2.78), and non-skilled manual, OR 2.03 (1.53-2.71) positions in relation to being sick-listed remained. The explanatory effect of mental work ability was small. Surprisingly, even in the sick-listed sample most respondents had high mental and physical work ability.


These results suggest that physical work ability may be an important key in explaining the social gradient in sickness absence, particularly in women. Hence, it is possible that the factors associated with the social gradient in sickness absence may differ, to some extent, between women and men.

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