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Why do women take more sick leave than men – and what can we do about it?

13 June 2014

Why do women take more sick leave than men – and what can we do about it?

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Last year, a study by Octopus HR found that women take 63% more instances of sick leave per year than their male colleagues. In February, this was followed by a survey from the Office for National Statistics that women are 42% more likely to take sick days than men.

This is no small figure. With sick leave estimated to cost UK employers £29 billion a year, the incentive to get to the bottom of the issue is huge. Yet so far, it seems that there has been little willingness to understand why this is happening and, even more crucially, act on it.

Traditional sickness explanations

Typically, there have been two narratives used to explain this gulf in staff absences. The first is that there is a greater culture of presenteeism among men than women. Men, the theory goes, are more likely to go into work when they are sick – whether or not that may be a good idea.

The second is that women tend to be the main carer for children or elderly relatives, and are therefore more likely to take sick days to deal with emergencies. Anecdotally at least, this seems to be true. Yet while the numbers of women with children in work are continuing to rise, it seems fair to assume that this can’t account for the whole difference.

Intriguingly though, the Octopus HR sickness trends data also breaks down instances of sick leave by department. HR teams, it seems, have the lowest number of sick days at just 0.98 per year for men and 2.12 for women. At the other end of the scale, finance (1.03 for men and 2.83 for women) and admin departments (1.16 for men and 3.06 for women) take the most.

The alternative possibility

This data appears to hint at another cause altogether. Currently, 77% of administrative and secretarial workers are female; meanwhile, the idea that sickness is linked to a lack of control and empowerment is continuing to gain ground.

A new study from Norway found that that those who work in stressful environments and who are not given much freedom were more likely to take extended periods of sick leave.

“It seems to be the combination of being in a high-stress environment and having no control leads to long-term absences,” says Dr. Samuel Harvey of the University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute, the lead author of the study.

“We know that women occupy the majority of the less powerful positions in the workplace, and often have the least control in their roles,” says Mandy Rutter, a psychologist with employee wellbeing firm Validium.

“What we also know is that illness, both physical and mental, is more prevalent in people who have less power and less control over their lives. Therefore we would expect women to have more illness as they have less power, and less control.”

To read more please visit HRzone