STUDY OBJECTIVE--To investigate the role of social supports, social networks, and chronic stressors: (i) as predictors of sickness absence; and (ii) as potential explanations for the socioeconomic gradient in sickness absence. DESIGN--A prospective cohort study (Whitehall II study) with sociodemographic factors, health and social support measured at baseline, and spells of sickness absence measured prospectively. SETTING--Twenty London based non-industrial departments of the British civil service. PARTICIPANTS--Participants were civil servants (n = 10,308), aged 35-55 years at baseline, of whom 67% (6895) were men and 33% (3413) were women. The overall response rate for Whitehall II was 73% (74% for men and 71% for women). The analysis is based on 41% of the sample who had data on reasons for sickness absence and were administered all social support questions. Only 4.3% of participants did not complete all necessary questions and were excluded. MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS--High levels of confiding/emotional support from the "closest person" predicted higher levels of both short and long spells of sickness absence. After adjusting for baseline physical and psychological health the effects were increased, suggesting that high levels of confiding/emotional support may encourage illness behaviour rather than generate illness. Social network measures showed a consistent but less striking pattern. Increased levels of negative aspects of social support resulted in higher rates of sickness absence. Material problems strongly predicted sickness absence, but the effect was diminished once adjustment for the covariables was made, suggesting that health status may be functioning as an intervening variable between chronic stressors and sickness absence. In addition, social support may buffer the effects of chronic stressors. Social support did not contribute to explaining the gradient in sickness absence by employment grade beyond that explained by the baseline covariables. CONCLUSIONS--Sickness absence from work is a complex phenomenon, combining illness and coping behaviours. High levels of confiding/emotional support, although not entirely consistent across samples, may either encourage people to stay at home when they are ill or may be accompanied by more social obligations at home prolonging sickness absence. Negative aspects of close relationships may jeopardize health and hence increase sickness absence.
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