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Research reveals risk of sickness absence with psychological problems

Frequent sickness absence leads to long-term absenteeism
01 December 2009

Of the staff members who report sick four or more times per year, about half will turn into long-term absentees within four years. Recurrent sickness absence is particularly a risk with psychological problems. These are the most important conclusions of the PhD research conducted by UMCG researcher Petra Koopmans. She will be awarded her PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 December 2009. Koopmans: ‘Employers should be aware not only of long-term absenteeism, but also of short and frequent sickness absence.’ 

Koopmans researched the absenteeism data of 54,000 Dutch people at ArboNed. Frequent absenteeism is a strong indication for long-term absenteeism, it turns out – 50% of the employees with recurrent absenteeism subsequently had a year of long-term sickness absence. It is also a predictor of recurrent frequent absenteeism – 61% had a further year of frequent absenteeism as opposed to 16% in the control group. In addition, in the four subsequent years employees with frequent sickness absence have a greater chance of becoming unfit for work for longer than a year, namely 11% as opposed to 4% in the control group. Of those employees with a history of long-term absenteeism, nearly half again suffer long sickness absence in the four subsequent years. Petra Koopmans: ‘There is a clear difference in the types of sickness absence. Absence due to psychological problems has a high chance of recurring, and although psychological sickness absence occurs more often with women than men, the chances of it recurring are the same.’

Incapacity to work and termination of employment

Employees who often report sick or do so for long periods have an increased chance of leaving employment in the following four years (26%, as opposed to 19% in the control group). Moreover, employees who often report sick or do so for long periods have a greater chance of being made redundant, while those in the control group more often leave employment themselves. The risk of this is higher for women and older employees than for men and younger employees. Older employees have a higher risk of long-term sick leave and also have a higher risk of incapacity for work and involuntary redundancy. Koopmans: ‘Since the working population on average is becoming older, it’s important to encourage personnel policy that takes age into account.’

Psychological problems and depression

Psychological problems are an important cause of sick leave and long-term incapacity for work. Sick leave caused by psychological problems occurs more frequently with women than with men and the greatest risk is in the age groups 30-39 and 40-49. The number of days of absence this results in is highest in the public sector and in education, followed by financial services and the health sector. Older employees take longer sick leave due to depression than do younger employees, and employees in small businesses take longer sick leave than do those in larger businesses. The length of a depressive episode in the Netherlands is comparable to that in other countries, but the sick leave lasts longer.

The solution: a monitoring system

In general, in the Netherlands only those taking lengthy sick leave are monitored. Koopmans: ‘However, monitoring sick leave is also important when the employees concerned take short sick leave, but do so often. Groups at risk of lengthy or repeated sick leave are women, older employees and employees in the low-end salary scales. Employees who have taken sick leave due to psychological problems should be checked three months after returning to work. Such employees should also be monitored for three years after returning to work.’


The research is based on a cohort of 53,990 employees working in Dutch mail and telecommunication companies, who were followed longitudinally for a 4-year period after the reference year. The group reporting sick often or for long periods was studied, as was the control group that did not. The chance of sick leave recidivism due to psychological problems was also studied in the same population in another period. Two background studies of absenteeism due to psychological problems were based on the total ArboNed population of over 1 million employees. Data was retrieved from the registration system for sickness absenteeism and covers a period of over ten years. The system is maintained by ArboNed.

Curriculum vitae

Petra Koopmans (Sneek, 1964) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen. She conducted her PhD research in the employ of ArboNed at the department of Health Sciences of the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), and within the research school SHARE. Her supervisor is Prof. J.W. Groothoff. The title of her thesis is ‘Recurrence of sickness absence. A longitudinal study’.

More information

- Contact the UMCG press office, tel. + 31 50 361 2200, e-mail:
- For more information about ArboNed contact Marjon Kranenbarg, LVB Networks, 033-4220080, 06-48013514 or

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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