Can't blame stressful jobs

Women have higher levels of sick leave than men, but it's not a higher work load that is to blame, according to new research. If we are to understand the causes of women's high levels of sick leave we must look beyond the workplace, says researcher Anne May Melsom.


While sick leave among men in Norway in 2014 was about 5 percent, among women it was over 8 percent, according to Statistics Norway (SSB). This difference is constant and stable, and it has been difficult to find a good explanation for it.

One hypothesis that has been put forward is that women have more stressful jobs than men and that female-dominated professions within sectors such as schools and health have negative effects on our health. But results from a new doctorate at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography point to one conclusion:

- We cannot put the blame on more stress in female-dominated professions. On the contrary our data indicates that men have more stressful jobs than women, says PhD candidate Anne May Melsom.

Living longer, but more sick

Men die younger than women and are more prone to suffer a series of serious illnesses. Nevertheless, women scorer lower than men on the majority of health indicators. For example, women experience more psychological stress, they report general poorer health and they use health services more frequently. In most countries sick leave among women is higher than among men.

Why is this the case? In the research literature two explanations have been forthcoming: The first is that women and men have different positions in the community and fill different roles, something that, for example, can entail that women have more stressful occupations. The second hypothesis is that women are more vulnerable and thus suffer more illness.

This new research indicates that the explanation is not to be found in women's workplaces. Anne May Melsom and colleague Arne Mastekaasa have utilised survey data from 17 European countries in the period 1998-2008 to disprove the hypothesis that female-dominated profession are more stressful. Norway was one of the countries included in the study, which is published in the European Sociological Review.

Greater differences within the same profession

Anne May Melsom. Photo: Tønnes Homme

- If the nature of individual professions is able to explain womens’ sick leave, we should observe smaller gender differences in sick leave when comparing men and women in the same occupation. This, however, is not the case - the opposite appears to be true. When we look at women and men in the same occupational category, we find a larger difference in the sick leave than when looking at all occupations, says Melsom.

She points out that men and women in the survey have not been asked directly about their working conditions.

- When we say that women’s workplaces on average are less stressful, we see this as a reasonable explanation for our results.

Equal gender balance, less illness

Another result in the doctorate, one that has also been seen in earlier studies, is that professions that are either male or female dominated have a higher level of sick leave than occupations with a more even distribution of the sexes. In Norway sick leave is at its highest in female-dominated professions.

- Our results indicate that individuals with a high tendency to take sick leave are over-represented in female-dominated occupations. Some or other mechanism makes it probable that women with a greater chance of taking sick leave apply for these jobs. It appears that such selection mechanisms, rather than unhealthy working conditions, create high rates of sick leave, Melsom says and adds:

- Perhaps some female-dominated occupations are easier to combine with other demands in life, such as family. In these occupations, in particular, it might be easier to arrange part-time work and this attracts people who need a more flexible workday.

Researchers believe that high levels of sick leave present in some male-dominated professions is caused by characteristics of the job, such as more demanding work conditions.

Accept differences?

The researchers can see no indication that women are discriminated into sectors that ruin their health. And the question why women have higher levels of sick leave than men remains unanswered.

This research indicates that we will have to look outside of the workplace to find answers to this puzzle.

- Certainly we should introduce measures into the workplace to reduce sick leave, but to reduce the gender difference in sick leave we will perhaps have to start elsewhere, says Melsom.

Other studies have followed up alternative explanations such as the "double-working hypothesis", where women take most of the responsibility for their families and that this affects their health, but even this hypothesis is not supported. There is no great increase in sick leave after workers become parents. Pregnancy-related sick leave does explain a lot of the difference we see in fertile age groups, but not everything.

- Perhaps it's more important to try to find out what one can do to bring down overall sick leave than focus on the differences between the sexes. These differences have remained stable over a long period and are difficult to explain. Perhaps we must accept that there is some difference, says Anne May Melsom.

By Silje Pileberg. Translated by Matthew Rix Whiting
Published Nov. 6, 2015 12:37 PM - Last modified Oct. 4, 2016 1:43 PM