Chronic pain, work absenteeism and sickness certification
: exploring the construction of acceptable pain-related work absence

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The aim was to elucidate the social construction of chronic pain as a cause of work absence in the UK, focusing on negotiation of sickness certification and return to work, in the context of recent policies to tackle rising sick-listing rates, including a national educational programme about the health benefits of work, and introduction of the ‘fit note’.Following a literature review, two qualitative studies were conducted from a symbolic interactionist perspective. The first comprised semi-structured interviews with doctors and chronic pain patients, leading to a second study in which employers and employees with chronic pain were interviewed. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed according to constructivist grounded theory principles.The first study revealed tensions in the doctor-patient relationship as the process of sickness certification was negotiated. The indeterminacy of chronic pain rendered the biomedical approach to diagnosis and assessment of capability for work problematic, while a shift to the psychosocial model could generate feelings of invalidation in patients. A wide range of moral and socio-cultural factors was invoked by doctors and patients to contest sick-listing decisions.The second study identified difficulties that can emerge when chronic pain patients return to work. Employees discussed how managers failed to understand their problems or make sustained adaptations; employers reported difficulty reconciling the needs of employees with organisational imperatives and argued that employees and doctors colluded in sanctioning low resilience. All stakeholder groups supported the fit note’s focus on capacity not incapacity, but were skeptical about whether it would surmount the tensions and difficulties that arise in sickness certification and return to work for chronic pain patients. Struggles for meaning and construction of identities are difficult for policy to address, but deeper understanding of the processes behind them and rich accounts of stakeholders’ views, may nudge the system towards more appropriate responses.
Date of Award24 Apr 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorChris Eccleston (Supervisor), Edmund Keogh (Supervisor) & David Wainwright (Supervisor)


  • chronic pain
  • sickness certification
  • doctor-patient relationship
  • fit note

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