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Open Access Research article

Emotional support predicts more sickness absence and poorer self assessed work ability: a two-year prospective cohort study

Nadine Karlsson1*, Elisabeth Skargren2 and Margareta Kristenson1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Division of Community Medicine, Social Medicine and Public Health Science, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

2 Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Division of Physiotherapy, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:648  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-648

Published: 26 October 2010



While back pain and stressful work environment are shown to be important causes of sickness absence the effect of psychosocial resources on sickness absence, and on self assessed work ability, is less commonly investigated. The aim of this study was to assess these associations in a two-year follow-up study.


341 working people aged 45 to 64, randomly drawn from the population, responded to a questionnaire at baseline and at a two-year follow-up. Poisson regression was used to analyse the association of psychosocial factors (psychosocial instruments on work environment, emotional support and psychological resources) and previous back pain (low back and/or neck) at baseline with sickness absence (spells and days) at follow-up, controlling for effects of age, sex, BMI, smoking, alcohol, occupation, disease and previous sickness absence. Logistic regression was used to study the associations of psychosocial factors and previous back pain at baseline with self assessed prognosis of poor work ability six months from follow-up. Finally, a multivariate analysis tested the independent effects of previous back pain and 3 psychosocial factors derived in a factor analysis: 1. work environment; 2. emotional support; 3. psychological resources, on work ability and absence days and spells.


80% of the sickness absence spells within the last 12 months before follow-up were short-term (≤ 14 days). In the final model, high emotional support predicted more sickness absence spells (RR 1.36; 1.11-1.67) and days (RR 1.68, 1.22-2.31). Previous back pain (OR 2.56; 1.13-5.81), high emotional support (OR 1.58; 1.02-2.46), and low psychological resources (OR 0.62; 0.44-0.89) were related to poorer self assessed prognosis of work ability at follow up.


In a general middle aged working population high emotional support was related to more sickness absence and also poorer self assessed prognosis of work ability. Our findings suggest that both sickness absence and self assessed work ability are dependent of life outside work and can be affected by a person's close community.