Effect of an eHealth Intervention to Reduce Sickness Absence Frequency Among Employees With Frequent Sickness Absence: Randomized Controlled Trial

Annette Notenbomer*, Corne Roelen, Johan Groothoff, Willem van Rhenen, Ute Bultmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Background: Frequent sickness absence-that is, 3 or more episodes of sickness absence in 1 year-is a problem for employers and employees. Many employees who have had frequent sickness absence in a prior year also have frequent sickness absence in subsequent years: 39% in the first follow-up year and 61% within 4 years. Moreover, 19% have long-term sickness absence (>= 6 weeks) in the first follow-up year and 50% within 4 years. We developed an electronic health (eHealth) intervention, consisting of fully automated feedback and advice, to use either as a stand-alone tool (eHealth intervention-only) or combined with consultation with an occupational physician (eHealth intervention-occupational physician).

Objective: This study aimed to evaluate the effect of the eHealth intervention, with or without additional occupational physician consultation, to reduce sickness absence frequency for employees with frequent sickness absence, versus care as usual (CAU).

Methods: This study was a three-armed randomized controlled trial. Employees with frequent sickness absence received invitational letters, which were distributed by their employers. The primary outcome measure was the number of register-based sickness absence episodes 12 months after completing the baseline questionnaire. Secondary outcome measures were register-based total sickness absence days and self-assessed burnout, engagement, and work ability. In a process evaluation 3 months after baseline, we examined adherence to the intervention and additional actions such as general practitioner and occupational physician visit, communication with the manager, and lifestyle change.

Results: A total of 82 participants were included in the analyses, 21 in the eHealth intervention-only group, 31 in the eHealth intervention-occupational physician group, and 30 in the CAU group. We found no significant difference in sickness absence frequency between the groups at 1-year follow-up. Sickness absence frequency decreased in the eHealth intervention-only group from 3 (interquartile range, IQR 3-4) to 1 episode (IQR 0.3-2.8), in the eHealth intervention-occupational physician group from 4 (IQR 3-5) to 3 episodes (IQR 1-4), and in the CAU group from 3 (IQR 3-4) to 2 episodes (IQR 1-3). For secondary outcomes, we found no significant differences between the intervention groups and the control group. The process evaluation showed that only 3 participants from the eHealth intervention-occupational physician group visited the occupational physician on invitation.

Conclusions: Among employees with frequent sickness absence, we found no effect from the eHealth intervention as a stand-alone tool in reducing sickness absence frequency, nor on total sickness absence days, burnout, engagement, or work ability. This might be due to low adherence to the intervention because of insufficient urgency to act. We cannot draw any conclusion on the effect of the eHealth intervention tool combined with an occupational physician consultation (eHealth intervention-occupational physician), due to very low adherence to the occupational physician consultation. An occupational physician consultation could increase a sense of urgency and lead to more focus and appropriate support. As this was the first effectiveness study among employees with frequent sickness absence, strategies to improve recruitment and adherence in occupational eHealth are included.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10821
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of medical internet research
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct-2018


  • occupational health
  • sick leave
  • randomized controlled trial
  • adult
  • occupational health physicians
  • eHealth

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