Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 275–285 | Cite as

The Concept of Work Ability

  • Per-Anders TenglandEmail author


Introduction The concept of “work ability” is central for many sciences, especially for those related to working life and to rehabilitation. It is one of the important concepts in legislation regulating sickness insurance. How the concept is defined therefore has important normative implications. The concept is, however, often not sufficiently well defined. Aim and Method The objective of this paper is to clarify, through conceptual analysis, what the concept can and should mean, and to propose a useful definition for scientific and practical work. Results Several of the defining characteristics found in the literature are critically scrutinized and discussed, namely health, basic standard competence, occupational competence, occupational virtues, and motivation. These characteristics are related to the work tasks and the work environment. One conclusion is that we need two definitions of work ability, one for specific jobs that require special training or education, and one for jobs that most people can manage given a short period of practice. Having work ability, in the first sense, means having the occupational competence, the health required for the competence, and the occupational virtues that are required for managing the work tasks, assuming that the tasks are reasonable and that the work environment is acceptable. In the second sense, having work ability is having the health, the basic standard competence and the relevant occupational virtues required for managing some kind of job, assuming that the work tasks are reasonable and that the work environment is acceptable. Conclusion These definitions give us tools for understanding and discussing the complex, holistic and dynamic aspects of work ability, and they can lay the foundations for the creation of instruments for evaluating work ability, as well as help formulate strategies for rehabilitation.


Health Competence Definition Work ability Work disability Work environment 



I would like to thank Lennart Nordenfelt, Kerstin Ekberg and the research group at FAR at Linköping University, Bengt Brülde, and Katarina Graah-Hagelbäck for valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper. This work has been financed by the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no competing interests.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public Health, Health and SocietyMalmö UniversityMalmöSweden

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