Study examines workers' freedom of expression on working environment

A study published in September 1999 finds that many Swedish employees are unwilling to express criticism of their working environment. This tendency is particularly notable in the public sector, despite strong protection for freedom of speech in this sector laid down in the Swedish Constitution.

At the end of September 1999, a study was published examining the significance of labour market and employment conditions for workers' willingness to criticise their working environment. Two researchers at the National Institute of Working Life (Arbetslivsinstitutet, ALI), professor Gunnar Aronsson and Klas Gustafsson, surveyed, with the support of Statistics Sweden (Statistiska Centralbyrån), some 3,800 individuals. The study indicates, among other findings, that employees in the public sector are not better off in terms of freedom of speech than workers in the private sector. The tendency is rather in the opposite direction.

Swedish legislation considers that it is an important part of a democratic working life for workers to be able to speak freely at the workplace and to call attention to deficiencies. The Work Environment Act (arbetsmiljölagen) emphasises the rights of employees to have an influence on their own working situations and to take part in change and development activities. Workplace democracy and the possibility of exerting influence are not only important work environment principles, within the concept of ideas of a "good" working environment, they may also be seen as a part of the "Swedish model" of good relations between workers and trade unions on one side, and the management of enterprises and public - governmental and municipal - authorities on the other.

Freedom of speech at the work place is also protected by the Constitution for employees in the public sector. Within the Constitution there are the Freedom of the Press Act (tryckfrihetsförordningen), the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression (yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen) and the Instrument of Government (regeringsformen), all three dealing with different aspects of freedom of speech and giving employees a guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of information. A public employer that tries to stop the expression of opinions is acting against the law. For employees in the private sector, there is no such protection at the workplace.

Questions about working environment

The 3,812 persons surveyed in the study were asked the following questions:

  • does the current situation in your workplace make you reluctant to express your opinion about the working environment and working conditions?
  • if you do express yourself on these matters, are your opinions met with sympathy?
  • if you express negative views and lines of argument, are there any risks that your position at work will suffer or that you will be met with less sympathy from management and your workmates.

The high unemployment in Sweden during the 1990s and the cutbacks and restructuring that have long affected all sectors were factors in the decision to conduct the survey. Also, the researchers believed that the general situation on the labour market might give cause for restraint in the expression of critical views on the working environment and working conditions. Overall among survey respondents, 15% said that they always, or almost always, held back their negative views.

Employment and occupation

The replies of employees differed significantly according to the form of their employment contract. Employees with fixed-term contracts were twice as likely as those on open-ended employment contracts to hold back their opinions; 25% of the fixed term workers "always" or "most" of the time withheld their negative views.

According to the comparisons in the study between occupational groups, it is the public medical services sector that shows the most negative values in terms of expressing views. Primary school teachers are the most "silent" group in the public education sector. In the private sector, four out of five workers in hotels and restaurants stated that they are restrained in their criticism of the working environment. However, in the "data and technology" occupational group, the positive experiences of freedom of speech are greater and the workers' negative responses are on a much lower level than the average.

Altogether 11% of the respondents considered that the expression of negative opinions may lead to a worsening of their position at the workplace. Responses differ according to the employers concerned. Twice as many employees in the government sector considered that there may be a risk of worsening their position at the workplace than in other sectors. In the public medical services sector and the education sector, values range from around 11% for assistant nurses to 21% for school teachers in the compulsory education sector and 27% for upper secondary school teachers.

Sympathy with views

Among the whole survey group, 19% stated that their views are always met with sympathy from the employer, and 60% that they are met with sympathy most of the time, while 21% report that their views are not met with sympathy. Employers in county council districts - which run large hospitals, for example - are least sympathetic, with 35% of the employees in this group reporting that they are not content with the position. In occupational terms, the highest levels of antipathy to workers' views are reported by doctors (55% state that they are never, or mostly not, met with sympathy), assistant nurses (36%) and upper secondary school teachers (32%). Among doctors, 41% report having met directly with displeasure from management. In the private sector, 4% of civil engineers state that they are never, or mostly not, met with sympathy, 8% of data experts and 18% of banking and finance employees.

No particular gender differences can be discerned in the survey responses. The researchers had expected that female workers might have a tendency to be more restrained in their criticism than their male colleagues and more afraid of being harassed, and might meet with less sympathy for their opinions. Another hypothesis was that the strong legal protection for freedom of speech in the public sector would make these workers better off than workers in the private sector. This hypothesis is given no support by the survey, the researchers observe. Indeed, the study indicates that the experience of risking displeasure and lack of sympathy for one's opinions on the working environment is more common in the public sector.

Commentary

In certain occupational categories examined in the study, a large number of those surveyed consider that there is a risk of displeasure and lack of sympathy from the management if they express their opinions. In the public medical service and in the public education sector, the situation seems rather worrying. On the other hand, over the last 10 years there has been a high level of reorganisation, restructuring and redundancies in the public sector. These are circumstances that may have had considerable influence on open and unrestrained discussion at the workplace, as the study observes. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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