Law on work-related stress in need of updating

A study has suggested Sweden’s Work Environment Act fails to tell employers what their obligations are towards their employees to prevent work-related stress and stress-related illness. Until recently there had not been a single conviction of an employer violating laws which outlaw working environments likely to cause ‘psychosocial’ illnesses. The study says the legislation is too vague and outdated, and the organisation that could clarify the rules has failed to do so.

Background

Stress-related illnesses associated with work and working conditions are increasing in Sweden. A report by the Swedish Council on Health Technology Assessment (SBU), The importance of working environment for symptoms of depression and chronic fatigue syndrome (in Swedish), says the number of employees taking sick leave because of work-related stress is growing steadily. Government statistics suggest that 40% of people on sick leave receive a psychosocial diagnosis.

A study, Chronic stress among adolescents: Contributing factors and associations with academic achievement (in Swedish) shows that stress-related illness and signs of ‘burn-out’ are also increasing among adolescents. The conclusion is that stress-related illnesses caused by the pressure to perform are increasing alarmingly in Swedish society today.

The 1977 Swedish Work Environment Act explicitly states that the employer shall ‘take all necessary steps to prevent the employee from being exposed to ‘unhealthiness or casualty’.

With this as a backdrop, a 2013 doctoral thesis, Take all necessary measures (in Swedish, 110 KB PDF), explores the employer’s liability and responsibility to prevent ill-health at work. The thesis looks at the employer’s rights and duties where the legislation is concerned and, in some aspects of it, the lack of accountability. The thesis also looks at an employer’s responsibility to prevent work-related stress. The study says that stress-related ill health is one of the most significant work-related issues of our time.

Work Environment Act

The Swedish Work Environment Act is all-encompassing about what can be viewed as the employer’s legal responsibility to prevent work-related stress and stress-related illnesses.

What is required of an employer is governed by rules on co-operation between employers and employees. There is also strict supervision from the Swedish Work Environment Authority (AV) and criminal liability for work environment violations.

Nevertheless, the legislation is rarely used in Swedish legal practice. The legislation been used just twice to prosecute workplaces alleged to have caused psychosocial ill-health. In the first case the case was dismissed. In the second case, two employers were recently found guilty of violating the Swedish Work Environment Act.

The Act is a framework regulation and it is complemented by rules and restrictions covering physical work environments issued by the AV who is responsible for interpreting it. However, as pointed out in the thesis, there are no directives covering stress at work.

The author argues that this explains why employers have not been prosecuted and convicted for violation of the Swedish Work Environment Act in cases of psychosocial illness.

This is not a new phenomenon, and it was addressed by the AV at the turn of the century. The authority did present proposals for binding directives that would cover stress-related illness at work. However, neither business groups nor the unions could agree on the directive and the project was dismissed. Even though the AV has the right to interpret the legislation, it wanted consensus before it made a decision.

Thesis conclusions

The thesis suggests that the Swedish Work Environment Act is too vague. Its author explains that lack of a clear understanding of what employers’ responsibilities are makes the act ineffective, and argues that the legislation is outdated.

The study argues that even though the issue of stress at work is a complex problem, it is possible to draw up general binding provisions for its prevention. While issues such as burn-out and bullying are hard to prove, as is proving that a job’s psychosocial environment is a cause of ill-health, the thesis suggests that the AV could introduce more precise requirements and impose binding rules with or without consent of employers and unions.

The thesis is an explorative study of the preparatory work for the legislation. To complement this, the author has examined how the preparatory work makes it possible for the employer and employee to co-operate. He also looks at what society and employees can demand of employers. The study was conducted using a wide legal science perspective.

Commentary

With the increasing incidence of psychosocial health problems such as stress-related illness, the law needs to adjust to modern working life. The current legislation and its lack of interpretation create no incentives for the employer to actively prevent stress in the workplace and tackle psychosocial ill health.

The employer can, in theory, be held accountable for violations of the Work Environment Act despite the fact that employees do not know what to demand or expect of the employer. A clearer interpretation of the law would address the growing public health problem of psychosocial illness.

References

Andersson, P. (2013), Vidta alla åtgärder som behövs [Take all necessary measures] (in Swedish, 110 KB PDF), PhD Thesis, Gothenburg University School of Business, Gothenburg.

Schraml, K. (2013), Chronic stress among adolescents: contributing factors and associations with academic achievement, PhD Thesis, Stockholm University, Stockholm.

Statens beredning för medicinsk utvärdering (2013), Arbetsmiljöns betydelse för symptom på depression och utmattningssyndrom. En systematisk litteraturöversikt, Stockholm.

Arbetarskydd (2013), Ingen står till svars för stressen, 26 August, available at http://www.arbetarskydd.se/tidningen/article3747315.ece

Chefstidningen (2013), Laglöst området, 25 September, available at http://www.chefstidningen.se/text/laglost-omrade?nomobile=1

Flamman (2013), Dags att vidta alla åtgärder som behövs, 9 October, available at http://www.flamman.se/dags-att-vidta-alla-atgarder-som-behovs

Gothenburg University School of Business (2013), Otydliga lagar om skadlig stress i arbetslivet, 6 July, available at http://www.handels.gu.se/om_handelshogskolan/press/pressmeddelanden/nyheter-detalj/otydliga-lagar-om-skadlig-stress-i-arbetslivet-.cid1173073

Svenska Dagbladet (2013), Regeringen ser över sjukregler, 16 May, available at: http://www.svd.se/nyheter/inrikes/regeringen-ser-over-sjukregler_8176082.svd

Sydvenskan (2014), Chefer döms efter självmord, 19 February, available at: http://www.sydsvenskan.se/sverige/chefer-doms-efter-sjalvmord/

Mats Kullander and Rebecka Kjellström, Oxford Research

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