Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Work, Sickness, Absence, and Identity-Work

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Work, Sickness, Absence, and Identity-Work

Article excerpt


According to the Central Statistics Bureau in Norway (SSB), the level of sick leave in Norway was 7.7% in 2009. Long-term (more than 12 weeks) sick leave is seen as more worrying than short-term absence. Indeed, prolonged leave is associated with a number of negative outcomes. Individuals risk poorer recovery, poverty, physical and mental health problems, and social exclusion or marginalization (Ose et al., 2006; Waddell and Burton, 2006). From the perspective of society, long-term absence because of illness represents a grave economic problem, and employers risk loss of experienced workers. Long-term sick leave is also associated with an increase in premature retirement because of disability (Blekesaune and Pedersen, 2006). Therefore, political efforts have been committed to reducing the level of sick leave and preventing employees from losing their bonds to working life. This has resulted in a major focus on absence from the workplace and measures at organizational and individual levels have been adopted to prevent long-term sick leave.

The major focus on sick leave from political authorities, media, and trade unions affects workplaces in public as well as private sectors. It has generated a negative cultural discourse on sick leave. The sick person who is absent from work has almost become a new modern outcast who needs to be registered and controlled. It has been argued that the level of long-term sick leave is related to diminishing work ethics in society, a thesis connected to the proposition that the Norwegian welfare pension system is too generous. Sickness absence has, in general, become negatively considered, a point underlined by Bellaby (1999) in his excellent book "Sick from work-the body in employment." This negative cultural discourse may influence and threaten the self-image of not only employees on long-term sick leave who struggle with injuries, illness, and debilitating health problems but also those who after several periods of sick leave are partly or completely on premature retirement because of disability. This article explores a group of industrial workers' experience of long-term sickness absence and their creative strategies for coping with this experience.

Data for the article come from in-depth interviews with men working in a Norwegian factory producing fertilizer. The factory used to be a cornerstone employer in the local community a couple of decades ago, and it is still a central workplace there. The factory workers have physically demanding jobs, and their bodies have to be fit and adjustable to the work tasks that are demanded of them.

To become ill or injured is experienced as a new situation by workers who are used to be in good health and able to use their body as a working tool. The new condition has many consequences and it interrupts the habits and routines of the workers' everyday life; it also challenges their identities and embodied individual subjectivities. Their new situation might change their lives and result in what Mike Bury (1982) called a biographical disruption.

How people handle such new situations depends on different circumstances, and to study the characteristics of how people respond to such situations is of vital importance to our understanding of changes in social life (Shilling, 2008). Following pragmatist theory (Shilling, 2008) and interactionism (Atkinson and Housley, 2003), I argue that when ordinary habits and routines are interrupted because of bodily problems and incapacities, people may not respond passively. Instead, they seem to use their creativity to rearrange their lives within the frames of new circumstances, hold on to identities or personal character traits important to them, and in new ways pursue the meaning of work and being active.

A number of studies have already explored the ways identity is managed by individuals at work (Allen Collinson, 2006; Collinson, 2003; Riach and Loretto, 2009) and how people with chronic illnesses work with their identities (Bury, 1982; Charmaz, 1994, 1999, 2000; Kelly, 1992). …

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