Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are more likely to be off sick more frequently and for longer, according to research in the UK and Sweden.
Researchers noted that low job control and decision-making opportunities had previously been shown to increase the likelihood of sick leave and that perception of fairness in the work place was a relatively new determinant of employee health.
“Long-term sickness absence might be a sign of more serious health problems”
Their study, published in journal BMC Public Health, focused specifically on the treatment of employees by managers – defined as their perceptions of “justice” at work.
This included whether staff felt they received truthful and candid information with adequate justification, and received respectful and dignified treatment by the manager.
Using data from more than 19,000 employees, the researchers investigated the relationship between such perceptions and long and frequent sickness absence. They also explored whether times of high uncertainty at work, for example perceived job insecurity, had an effect on sick leave.
The study analysed data from participants in a long-term biennial survey – the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health – that focuses on the association between work organisation, work environment and health. It used data from the 2010, 2012, and 2014 surveys.
The researchers found that “lower levels of justice” related to an increase in both shorter, but more frequent sickness absence periods, and also longer sickness absence episodes. Also, higher levels of job insecurity turned out to be an important predictor of long and frequent sickness absence.
“Organisations might also gain from the selection of managers for their qualities associated with fair practices”
Study co-author Dr Constanze Eib, a lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of East Anglia, said: “While shorter, but more frequent periods of sickness absence might be a chance for the individual to get relief from high levels of strain or stress, long-term sickness absence might be a sign of more serious health problems.
“Our results underline the need for fair and just treatment of employees irrespective of perceived job insecurity in order to keep the workforce healthy and to minimise lost work days due to sickness absence,” she said.
Meanwhile, lead author Dr Constanze Leineweber, from Stockholm University, highlighted that perceived fairness and job insecurity were “modifiable” aspects of the work environment”.
Employers “may gain by investing or improving their policies and rules for fair treatment of their workforce and by improving job security”, she noted.
“Organisations might also gain from the selection of managers for their qualities associated with fair practices,” she said, as well as investing in training on the subject and reviewing them against its use.
Latest available data on nurses, midwives and health visitors working for the NHS in England put the sickness absence rate in July at 4.69%, higher than the overall rate of 4.01% for all staff types.
However, for healthcare assistants and other support staff, the rate was 6.10%, according to the data published by NHS Digital in November.
The sickness absence rate is calculated by dividing the sum total sickness absence days (including non-working days) by the sum total days available per month for each member of staff.