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Managing sickness absence and return to work: The impact of vocational rehabilitation


“What works? Several new projects aim at assessing the impact of different kinds of vocational rehabilitation and the overall answers to the problem of (long-term) sickness absence: does rehabilitation matter at all, and is the impact of rehabilitation greater in periods of growth and prosperity and unemployment than in periods of economic stagnation? The latter question is perhaps particularly pertinent at the present time.

Employee absence due to illness is a huge challenge for the labour market and policy makers. Moreover, the demographic development in the western countries, which means there may be a lack of labour in future years, makes it even more important to find the right answers to these questions: How do we get employees to return to work after serious illness? How can the rehabilitation process be improved; what really works?

Using register data, Senior Researcher at SFI Jan Høgelund is seeking answers to these questions in several new projects. Together with fellow researchers, he will try to shed light on the complex of problems from various different angles.

The role of recession

One of the projects takes a general view on the subject of vocational rehabilitation. The researchers hope to establish the connection between economic recession or recovery and rehabilitation: is the impact of rehabilitation greater in more prosperous times than in times of recession?

“If we can reach significant results, it will be possible for politicians to intervene constructively to influence best practice. Thus rehabilitation can be used as a much more active policy instrument,” says Jan Høgelund.

Searching for unknown impacts

Two other projects focus on the impact of vocational rehabilitation in terms of courses and education of people on sickness leave. Previous research has shown that, apparently, education does not improve people’s chances of returning to work.

“We wonder if there might be other results of education and training than the parameters identified in previous research. Could a positive impact on salary, for instance, be a significant parameter? Or does further education lead to a better future job match, so that employees stay in their new jobs longer because they are more qualified? We hope to gain new insights into these specific areas,” says Jan Høgelund.

Graded return to work or part-time sick leave

In Denmark it has become increasingly common to allow people who have been absent due to illness to return to work part-time in the beginning and then later resume work full time. The scheme is supported financially by the state. The employee receives a full salary for the hours worked, and sickness benefit for the hours off work. Employers often top-up sickness benefit to the full salary.

Part-time sick leave as a specific kind of rehabilitation will also be evaluated by Jan Høgelund and his colleagues. Using data from an existing study, the researchers will use a different method than that used in previous studies to assess the effect of part-time sick leave.

The results of the research projects are expected to be published at the end of 2015.

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