Women with fibromyalgia frequently take sick leave, but for workplace-specific reasons rather than due to disease-related issues, a French study suggests.
The study, titled “Fibromyalgia in the workplace: risk factors for sick leave are related to professional context rather than fibromyalgia characteristics — a French national survey of 955 patients,” was published in the journal BMC Rheumatology.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain disorder that is much more frequent among women compared with men, and is considered “the second most important rheumatologic disorder after osteoarthritis,” the researchers said.
Work has been shown to be beneficial for people with fibromyalgia, as it may help with pain and fatigue. One study found that female patients with fibromyalgia who worked “report better health status than women who are not employed.”
However, symptoms of the disease can often impair work capacity, limit career progression, and cause grievances between patients and employers.
A prior study of 39 women with fibromyalgia — 19 of whom were gainfully employed and 20 who had stopped working — found that participants had problems with work schedules, repetitive motions, a decrease in productivity, and concentration problems.
These difficulties may make it difficult for patients to do their jobs, and may lead to repeated absences.
The French researchers behind the new study found that “employees suffering from [fibromyalgia] have been reported to take three times more sick leave than other workers without [the disease].”
Therefore, the team investigated factors associated with sick leave during a 12-month period among employed women living with fibromyalgia.
To evaluate these factors, the researchers sent out a national online survey that was developed by a patient organization and three medical experts, including rheumatologists and pain specialists.
Among the 4,185 women who responded, 955 worked full-time and had a Fibromyalgia Rapid Screening Tool (FiRST) score of 5/6 or more. These women were included in the study, which analyzed their sick leave over the previous 12 months.
The results indicated that these participants had an average of 37 days of leave over the prior year.
Among the entire group, 12% took more than two months of sick leave, while 14% took one to two months, and 38% took up to one month. The remaining 36% took no sick leave.
Interestingly, there were no differences in demographics, symptoms of fibromyalgia, functional severity, and psychological distress among the women who took different amounts of sick leave.
However, patients did differ in their workplace-related characteristics. Strong independent risk factors for longer sick leave included commute time, stress and difficulties at work, repetitive work, noisy conditions, career progression problems, and lack of recognition.
“Our study showed also that sedentary professional activity with repeated movements and exposure to a noisy working environment were related to sick leave,” the researchers said.
Further, women who took sick leave were more likely to report feeling aggravated by their work.
“More than 68% of the women said that their employers did not recognize their condition, but this lack of recognition was not associated with a longer total duration of sick leave,” the team said.
On the other hand, unlike results reported from other studies, data from this study showed that sedentary positions, an extended sitting position, heavy loads, exposure to thermal disturbances, and the use of vibrating tools did not increase the risk of sick leave, despite being clinically meaningful.
“Our results highlight the predominance of socioprofessional context over clinical and demographic characteristics in the ability of women suffering from fibromyalgia to remain in work,” the investigators said.
“Further studies are required to assess the impact of an early adaptation of working conditions, job description and the development of close professional medical follow-up, on the ability of people suffering from fibromyalgia to remain in employment,” they added.