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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Childhood temperament 'strongly associated' with being out of work in later life

Embargoed until 02 March 2009

Children who are unhappy at school, complain of aches and pains or skip school for trivial reasons are more likely to be permanently off work sick when they are adults, new research suggests.

The research, published in the March issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, shows a strong association between childhood temperament and sickness absence in middle age.

Researchers studied over 7,100 people who were born in Aberdeen between 1950 and 1955. During the 1960s, data was collected on the children’s educational performance and how regularly they attended primary school. Teachers were asked to assess each child’s behaviour, temperament and reasons for missing school. In 2001, the researchers followed up the participants to find out their current employment status.

At the 2001 follow-up, 392 of the participants (5.5%) said they were ‘permanently sick or disabled’. There was no evidence that those children who were regularly absent from school because of poor physical health were more likely to be sick or disabled in later life. However, there was a link between the children’s temperament at school – as reported by their teachers – and long-term sickness absence.

A quarter of the children whose teachers reported them as ‘often appearing miserable, unhappy, tearful or distressed’ or ‘often complaining of aches and pains’ were permanently sick or disabled 40 years later.

In addition, over 10% of the children whose teachers described them as ‘tending to be fearful or afraid of new things or new situations’ or ‘tending to be absent from school for trivial reasons’ were out of work in adulthood.

The researchers believe there are a ‘range of vulnerabilities’ established in childhood that influence behaviour in later life. For example, children who show signs of problematic behaviour and temperament may be more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety in later life. They may also have unexplained physical symptoms, and be less able to manage or tolerate minor discomfort and pain.

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
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Henderson M, Hotopf M and Leon DA (2009) Childhood temperament and long-term sickness absence in adult life, British Journal of Psychiatry, 194: 220-223


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