New scheme to reduce sick leave absenteeism

In September 2008, a new scheme was introduced in Norwegian working life aiming to improve communication between doctors, employers and employees in relation to sick leave. The scheme forms part of the Norwegian initiative to create an inclusive working life, one of its goals is to reduce sickness absenteeism by means of adjusting work organisation for people with health problems. The main objective is to get people on sick leave back to work as soon as possible.

Pending sick leave scheme

On 1 September 2008, the Norwegian government introduced a new scheme entitled ‘pending sick leave’ (avventende sykemelding) in the country’s working life. The scheme’s purpose is to achieve the necessary adjustments to work organisation for employees who are on the verge of taking ordinary sick leave, according to a press release (in Norwegian) by the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (Arbeids- og velferdsforvaltningen, NAV). Doctors may prescribe pending sick leave in cases where the employee/patient experiences health problems but is able to continue working if certain adjustments are made to the way their work is organised.

The scheme will foster dialogue between the employee and employer in situations where a lack of work adjustments would otherwise lead to ordinary sick leave being taken. Such measures might imply that the employee is given alternative tasks for a period of time, for instance, being relieved from heavy lifting duties. In cases where an adjustment to work organisation is not possible, the pending sick leave may be transferred into ordinary sick leave.

An important component of the new scheme is a new kind of medical report form, in which the doctor may write notes to the employer. The form also allows the employer to provide information to the doctor about the possibilities and limitations with regard to the potential for workplace adjustments. The aim of the new scheme is to establish a dialogue between the doctor, the employee concerned and the employer at an early stage, ideally before sick leave is deemed necessary.

Promoting inclusive workplaces

The pending sick leave scheme forms part of efforts in Norway to achieve ‘inclusive workplaces’. In this regard, the emphasis is on the importance of adjusting workplaces or work tasks to the individual employee’s needs. In recent years, a great deal of emphasis has also been placed on securing dialogue between employers, employees and doctors in connection with sickness absenteeism, and a number of supportive measures have been introduced to this end.

Doctors must assess whether an employee on sick leave is fit to perform other work tasks. In case of long-term sickness absenteeism, the employer must take the initiative to convene a meeting with the employee where both parties work out a follow-up plan containing recommendations on the type of measures best suited to bringing a sick employee back to work. So-called ‘dialogue meetings’ shall be held after 12 weeks and also after six months.

Further measures promoting return to work

Other measures promoting inclusive workplaces include increased funding for the NAV ‘working life centres’, which are vested with the responsibility of advising companies on issues relating to workplace adjustments and sick leave. Furthermore, special financing schemes have been introduced allowing absentees quicker access to healthcare treatment and to rehabilitation if necessary. The main purpose of these measures are to avoid that absentees lose touch with the workplace. One of the main aims of the Inclusive Working Life Agreement (Inkluderende arbeidsliv, IA-agreement) (NO0601101N, NO0702019I) is that (long-term) passive sick leave should be avoided as far as possible and that employees on sick leave should be brought back to work as soon as possible on a part-time or full-time basis.

Social partners support new scheme

The rationale behind the wide-ranging initiative to get people on sick leave quickly back to work is the relatively high sickness absence rate in Norway. Statistics Norway (Statistisk sentralbyrå, SSB) data from the second quarter of 2008 show that the sickness absence rate amounts to 6.8% – that is, man-days lost due to sickness as a percentage of scheduled man-days, excluding self-employed persons. Recurrent proposals to change the current sick pay scheme – relating to full pay compensation from the first day of sick leave – have been met by strong resistance from the trade union side, and efforts instead aim to get people on sick leave back to work through a combination of workplace adjustments and a closer follow-up of the absentee than in the past. Initiatives taken in recent years have been based on the so-called IA-agreement, which is a collaborative venture between employers, employees and the national authorities, and which has received wide-ranging support from both the employee and employer sides in Norwegian working life (NO0301104f, NO0409106F, NO0609019I and NO0611029I).

Further information

Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), Working in an inclusive working life (IW) enterprise (1.88Mb PDF), Oslo, 2008.

NAV, Letter of intent regarding a more inclusive working life 2006–2009 (147Kb PDF), IA-agreement in English, Oslo, 2007.

Kristine Nergaard, Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science

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