Sickness absence has represented a growing public health problem in many Western countries over the last decade. In Sweden disorders of the musculoskeletal system cause approximately one third of all sick leave. The Social Insurance Agency (SIA) and the health care system are important actors in handling the sickness absence process. The objective was to study how patients with personal experience of sickness absence due to musculoskeletal disorders perceived their contact with these actors and what they considered as obstructing or facilitating factors for recovery and return to work in this situation.
In-depth interviews using open-ended questions were conducted with fifteen informants (aged 33-63, 11 women), all with experience of sickness absence due to musculoskeletal disorders and purposefully recruited to represent various backgrounds as regards diagnosis, length of sick leave and return to work. The interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim and analysed using content analysis.
The informants' perceived the interaction with the SIA and health care as ranging from coherent to fragmented. Being on sick leave was described as going through a process of adjustment in both private and working life. This process of adjustment was interactive and included not only the possibilities to adjust work demands and living conditions but also personal and emotional adjustment. The informants' experiences of fragmented interaction reflected a sense that their entire situation was not being taken into account. Coherent interaction was described as facilitating recovery and return to work, while fragmented interaction was described as obstructing this. The complex division of responsibilities within the Swedish rehabilitation system may hamper sickness absentees' possibilities of taking responsibility for their own rehabilitation.
This study shows that people on sick leave considered the interaction with the SIA and health care as an important part of the rehabilitation process. The contact with these actors was perceived as affecting recovery and return to work. Working for a more coherent process of rehabilitation and offering professional guidance to patients on sick leave might have an empowering effect.