By: 7 January 2013

Three-quarters of pregnant women take sick leave from work but employers can help reduce this through flexible work adjustments, suggests a new study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

The study looked at women scheduled to give birth at the Akershus University Hospital in Norway over an 18-month period, and the prevalence of, reasons for and factors associated with sick leave during their pregnancies.

Researchers gathered information via a questionnaire conducted at week 17 and week 32 of pregnancy, from a total of 2,918 women, of which 2,197 (just over 75 percent) received sick leave at some point during their pregnancy.

The study found, that women took an average of eight weeks sick leave, ranging from week one to week 40 of pregnancy, the majority needed between weeks four and 16. The factors associated with sick leave varied according to trimester of pregnancy, with more women requiring time off as their pregnancies progressed. By week 32, 63 percent of the women in this study were taking sick leave.

Overall, 35 percent of women cited fatigue and sleep problems as the main reason for taking sick leave, followed closely by pelvic girdle pain (pain caused by limited mobility and functioning of the pelvis joints) and nausea or vomiting, with 32 percent and 23 percent of women suffering these symptoms respectively.

While very few women (2.1 percent) cited anxiety or depression as a reason for their sick leave, they recorded the longest average period of sick leave, taken at 20 weeks.
The study also looked at work adjustments for pregnant women and found 60 percent of the 2,197 women reported having adjustments made to their working situation. On average, these women reported taking seven days less sick leave than those who went without job adjustments.

Dr Signe Dorheim, Division of Psychiatry, Stavanger University Hospital, Norway and co-author of the paper said: “We found that a large number of pregnant women take time off work as sick leave. The factors associated with sick leave varied according to the trimester of pregnancy, but some of these factors are not necessarily caused by pregnancy alone.

“While past medical history and socioeconomic conditions can influence the occurrence and length of time taken off as sick leave, women’s working situations during pregnancy were significant contributors to our findings.”

Dr Dorheim continued: “Women who suffer from work-related fatigue, such as insomnia, are likely to require more time off, especially during late pregnancy.

“Further research is needed to look at how treatment of certain conditions and work adjustments can lead to less time being taken off work and ultimately a better quality of life for pregnant women.”