Men with different patterns of sickness absence behaviour have been identified from a refinery population by simple epidemiological techniques. A detailed clinical study is described of four groups: 56 men with five or more sickness spells in 1964 and a matched control of 56 men; 35 men who had 60 or more days of sickness absence in 1964; and finally 47 men who had not had one day off sick for at least eight years.
Whereas the men who were frequently sick tended to be younger and mostly on day work, those with long periods of sickness were reasonably representative of the whole population, and the men without any sickness absence were older and mostly on shift work. An analysis of records both before and since 1964 showed that the groups had maintained a consistent pattern of sickness absence, but when individuals were considered their behaviour was less consistent. Nevertheless there appeared to be states of sickness absence `liability' and also `resistance' which persisted for a variable length of time from a year or two up to many years.
The pre-employment medical examination proved in retrospect to have been of little predictive value. Absenteeism, lateness, and also occupational injuries were all strongly associated with sickness spells, although the level of overtime was not. Previous episodes of neurotic illness, peptic ulceration, and loss of work due to back pain were also associated with frequent sickness spells, so also were frequent colds and troublesome constipation. An unexpected finding from the physical examination was that over one quarter of those who were never sick had some organic disease.
Although neither the social nor economic circumstances differed between the groups, the attitude of the men towards themselves and their work proved to be of major importance. A memory of an unhappy childhood was more common in both groups with a lot of sickness absence, whilst dislike of the job or frustrated ambition was common in men with frequent spells. Those who were never sick denied all such problems as they denied illness. Personality testing revealed that extroversion was more marked in the frequently sick group, neuroticism in the long sick, and introversion in the never sick.
The validity and significance of the results are discussed and suggestions are made for further investigation.