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When workers go on disability, it could have more to do with depression than pain

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

You would think disability would be the reason most workers take disability leave. Turns out, that may not be the case.

A recent German study shows that a middle-aged worker who develops arthritis is much more likely to take a disability pension and retire early if she is feeling depressed than if she is struggling physically to perform her job but isn’t suffering mentally. Overall, musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis are the most common cause (pdf) of early retirement in Europe.

The results may seem obvious—if you’re not interested in doing things most of the time, you’re probably also not too chipper about going to work. Yet relatively little attention is given directly to the mental health of workers who are suffering from physical ailments. The study’s authors conclude:

Whether or not patients with early arthritis are considering applying for disability pension depends more on mental conditions than on disease activity…well-directed attention on the patient’s well-being in the early stages of the disease may help the patients to remain in the labour force.

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