White-collar workers' unions report increased stress and ill-health

Many employees pay with their health for workforce reductions and an increased speed of work, and this is too high a price to pay, claims the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) in a new report on stress in working life published in May 2000.

Nine out of 10 white-collar workers say that they work against the clock in their daily tasks; 40% often skip their lunch break and other breaks due to lack of time; and 65% do not have time enough to finish their tasks properly. These are among the findings of a report - entitled Stressed out, committed to work and burnt out, or bored and healthy - must one choose? (Stressad, engagerad och utbränd eller uttråkad och frisk - måste man välja) - carried out by Fama Konsult AB and Argument analys & idé for the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO), and published on 24 May 2000.

The TCO survey was carried out in 1998 and 1999 in cooperation with its affiliates, the Financial Sector Union of Sweden (Finansförbundet), the Union of Insurance Employees (Försäkringstjänstemannaförbundet) and the Salaried Employees' Union (Handelstjänstemannaförbundet, HTF). Some 2,800 workers belonging to the three trade unions were asked about their job situation and working hours, with a special focus on working time related to work organisation, health and leisure time.

The speed of work is very high nowadays, TCO concludes, and workers face great demands to be fast, flexible, changeable and always available. The conditions for doing business have changed, and competition and rapid technical developments have led to major changes for workers. Almost half of the white-collar workers surveyed have seen their work tasks change over the past two years (1998 and 1999), according to the study. This does not mean, however, that workers find theirs jobs boring: nine out of 10 white-collar workers state that they have an interesting job.

More sick leave

It is claimed that one consequence of the tougher climate at the workplace is an increasing amount of sick leave being taken. According to statistics from the National Social Insurance Board (Riksförsäkringsverket, RFV), in September 1999, 14% of 15,000 workers on long-term sick leave stated that the reason for their sick leave was stress and mental strain. In September 1998, the corresponding figure was 11.7%. In 1999, the total cost of sick leave to the state was SEK 24.5 billion, a figure that RFV expects to rise to SEK 41.2 billion in 2003.

The demands of customers in the very customer-oriented sectors of banking, insurance and commerce, where the employees surveyed work, have increased quite considerably during the past five years, according to the workers. Some 80% of the workers state that customers want much quicker service, more information, more pleasant behaviour and more quality overall. The demands of customers control the working situation more than the employer does, report 59% of those surveyed. The speed of work is reported to be intense, with 40% of workers stating that they do not eat lunch and that they skip other breaks in order to finish whatever they are doing. As many as 65% state that they do not have enough time to catch up with their tasks. When they go home, 55% of the workers report that they are exhausted.

Influence and control

A large proportion of the white-collar workers surveyed state that they cannot influence their work situation. For example: 59% of the workers say that they have little or no possibility to decide when to work; 84% that they cannot decide where (at home, in the office or elsewhere) they work; and 68% that they cannot decide how many hours they work during a given week.

Around 90% of the survey respondents say that they have an interesting job, which is meaningful and pleasant. More than half of the group, 59%, go so far as to state that they are dedicated to their jobs. However, it appears that the high-speed, stressful work situation may lead to loneliness, making the job more and more of a burden. The workers surveyed are generally content with their colleagues: 28% would like to have better contact with their colleagues, while 23% would like to have better contact with their customers.

Health and gender differences

Eight out of 10 white-collar workers in the survey group believe that stress at work will increase in the coming five years. Three out of four workers find their jobs mentally strenuous. In looking for symptoms that are often related to stress, the authors of the TCO report found that 51% of the workers surveyed had problems with their stomach during the past three months, 66% had problems with their back and neck and 65 % had suffered from headaches. The workers reporting a high speed of work have more stress symptoms than workers with a lower work speed.

The TCO researchers also tried to measure the relationship between the degree of influence on the individual work situation and health. Among respondents with a high degree of influence over their work situation, 50% state that they have never been off work due to sickness. By contrast, only about 25% of those workers with a low level of influence say that they have never taken sick leave. However, while finding that there is a relationship between influence and health, the researchers state that it differs between male and female white-collar workers. For the male workers, it is important to be able to control the development of their own situation and what tasks they will perform, and to know how much they are going to work during the week. Men who have this control over their work situation tend to feel better and to experience fewer stress symptoms. On the other hand, the researchers state that female workers do not find it so important to know the future development of their work tasks or how much they will need to work during a week. However, it is important for women to decide themselves how the work tasks are to be carried out and which hours they need to work during a week.

The researchers state that these gender differences also reflect the fact that men and women in the finance and commerce sector tend to work different occupations. In the occupations dominated by women, the work is controlled in more detail and workers do not have any major impact on their work situation. Therefore it is important for the women workers to decide how they carry out their tasks. The job situation in many of the occupations dominated by men is much more unrestricted, and how they do their jobs is their own business. Men are more interested in influencing their career opportunities, according to the survey.

Finally, TCO makes a statement in the report, as the central organisation for Swedish white-collar workers. It emphasises that stress, "burn-out" and ill-health at work must be fought. The theories and opinions as to the reasons for increasing stress and sick leave differ, with some people holding that stress is an individual problem. However, one cannot blame the employers only, as many researchers and the media often do, TCO states. Nor can individual workers be blamed for their ill-health. Both the work environment perspective and the individual perspective must be taken into account in developing good work environments, TCO concludes.

Labour shortages and workplace stress

A report from the Swedish National Board for Industrial and Technical Development (Nutek), published on 8 June 2000, supports the findings of the TCO survey. The Nutek report, Kompetens - en bristvara?, examines enterprises' views on the supply of skills. The lack of technically-skilled labour in certain sectors has now increased to the extent that economic growth and the health of workers are threatened, the report finds. An increased work burden for employees is one of the consequences of skill shortages, and the situation for the employees will soon be much worse if nothing is done, says Nutek. About 80% of the 200 companies surveyed in the report state that, as a direct cause of recruitment problems, there is an increased work burden, and about 60% state that more overtime is being worked.


The demands for more flexibility and a greater customer orientation, insecurity in the labour market and labour shortages in certain sectors are all increasing pressures on employees. The possibilities for individuals to influence their own work situation are crucial for determining how the increased demands are experienced, and a large number of white-collar workers cannot influence their own work situation. Part of the increased stress at work relates to labour shortages in certain sectors and occupations, and one way to solve this may be through more education for employees.

The various trade union confederations are well aware of the increasing stress at the workplace in Sweden, as are employers. This is being manifested in various conferences, reports and discussions in the media. In February 2000, the government appointed a working group, with representatives of the social partners and other interested parties, to look into the problems and possibly propose some changes in the work environment legislation and other measures. The working group is due to present the results of its work in September 2000. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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