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More sick leave among ‘double-shift’ women than men

| Text and photo: Gunhild Wallin

When a woman has her second child while holding down an equally demanding job as the father, she is at twice the risk of going off sick compared to her husband, according to a new report on sick leave among women, presented in Sweden on 5 November.

“Women have considerably higher levels of sick leave than men and trying to understand the reasons for the increase in women’s absence from work is one of our time’s great socio-political challenges,” said Sweden’s Minister for Social Security, Ulf Kristersson (Moderates) when he opened a breakfast meeting on women’s sick leave. The meeting on 5 November was hosted by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The number of sick days taken has generally fallen in Sweden, yet women’s sick leave levels are considerably higher than men’s, which is an international trend. The level of sick leave among women is increasing too, and the most common causes are psychological problems followed by muscular ailments. The reasons behind all this are without doubt complex, according to the seminar speakers and participants. Ulf Kristersson described his nearly obsessive interest in trying to understand what is happening.     

“Never before have we had access to better help to get people with somatic illnesses back into work, but we are not doing as well when it comes to diseases which are on the increase today,” said Ulf Kristersson. 

As part of gathering new knowledge about women’s sick leave levels, Ulf Kristersson initiated three different reports on the theme one year ago. Each report highlights different perspectives, and they were all presented during the seminar.

The Swedish Social Security Agency has performed a so-called registry study which maps levels of sick leave over time for parents who had their first children in 2005.  

Karolinska Institutet has performed a study of sick leave among twin sisters where one twin has given birth and the other has not. The third report is a genetics analysis of women’s sick leave levels performed by psychologist and organisation consultant Heléne Thomsson. 

When working and family life collide

The Social Security Agency has performed a registry study of all women and men who had their first child in 2005. The agency then analysed the correlation between the degree of gender equality between the spouses both at home and in the labour market, and the risk for the mother going off on sick leave. The analysis shows that women are off sick more often than men even before the first child is born – a difference which increases especially after the second child is born, when the woman is twice more likely to go on sick leave. 

Foto: Gunhild Wallin

Laura Hartman from Sweden's Social Security Agency.

“When the workload is at its heaviest, combined with having responsibilities also in the labour market, we see that the probability for women taking sick days increases markedly,” says Laura Hartman, head of analysis at the Social Security Agency.

The level of education, where they live, income and occupation are all factors which influence women’s health and the results confirm the image that women with high education and income take less time off sick. Women working in the health sector, education and care are at greater risk of falling ill than women in other occupations. Before their first child, psychological and muscular ailments represent the most common reasons for the women going off sick. After their first child is born the reasons are often related to complications during pregnancy, and after the second child psychological ailments again become the most common cause. 

Career women or women in higher positions than their partner who also share responsibility for running the household are more likely to end up on sick leave. Men’s health is not particularly affected by having children, regardless of number. 

At the same time it is not as simple as saying children automatically lead to higher sick leave numbers, according to the report from Karolinska Institutet. On the contrary; the twin women who did not have children were more often off sick or received other work-related benefits compared to their sisters.

Inequality linked to children

Heléne Thomsson wanted to use genetic analysis of women’s work absence to broaden the perspective and make us look at the system which influences women’s levels of sick leave. She includes terms like power, norms, relations and expectations.

“What do we think about each other, about society and about who benefits from having women trying to fit into a pattern which makes us ill?”

The inequality often becomes more visible when children arrive, and parenthood means different things to women and men. Both norms and choices become limited, which in turn increases the risk of ill health. Gender equality is therefore considered to be an important factor in improving women’s health.

“If our basic idea is that women share the same responsibility in working life as men, then men take must the same responsibility at home and for family life,” the Minister for Social Security Ulf Kristersson also said during a TV debate on women’s sick leave levels.

Facts

Sweden’s Ministry of Social Affairs presented three reports on women’s sick leave levels on 5 November. 

The Swedish Social Security Agency has looked at how women’s sick leave is influenced by childbirth and its registry study shows how two years after the birth of their second child women become twice as likely to go off sick as men.

Karolinska Institutet has looked at female twins and compared the impact childbirth versus remaining childless has on their health.

Heléne Thomsson, psychologist and organisational consultant, has performed a genetic analysis of women’s sick leave levels.

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