Rise in level of sick leave leads to action measures

A sharp rise in the number of workers on long-term sick leave, from about 70,000 cases in 1997 to 185,000 in 2002, is a source of concern for the Swedish government. In an attempt to redress the problem, it is currently launching a number of actions.

The increase in long-term sick leave (six months or more) over the period 1974-2001 is illustrated in the figure below. Sick leave of less than six months’ duration has also increased during this period but not as dramatically (SE0301103N).

Workers on sick leave

Reasons for the increase

The reasons behind the escalation in sick leave are complex and merit further evaluation. They include: increases in the pace of work and work pressures, as well as less tolerance in the workplace for persons who, for various reasons, cannot perform optimally. These factors have been identified in recent research carried out by the National Institute for Working Life (Arbetslivsinstitutet) and published in the report Ute och inne i svenskt arbetsliv (Work life in transition), 2003.

The following data are also presented in the report:

  • The number of workers who think about work while on leave has doubled since 1984. In 2001, 31% of women and 28% of men report thinking about work every day while on leave.
  • More workers experience sleeping difficulties (at least once a week) due to worries over work. This figure has also doubled since 1984, to 22% for women and 19% for men.
  • The number of employees stating that they are ‘often tired’ has increased dramatically, from 30% in 1988 to 50% in 2001.
  • The figure for workers who experience some shoulder or neck pain has risen from 33% in 1988 to 42% in 2001.

Causes of sick leave

In 2003, 43% of women on sick leave stated that the illness was due to their working conditions, compared with 27% in 1997. For men, the corresponding figures are 39% and 24% (Work related health problems, 2003, Statistics Sweden- pdf file ).

Long-term sick leave is an indicator of premature exit from working life and is mainly due to ergonomic factors, although sick leave due to psychological causes is becoming increasingly prevalent (Ministry of Health and social affairs, SOU 2002:5- pdf file ).

Measures adopted

Due to the increase in long-term sick leave, the Swedish government has set out an 11-point action programme (pdf file) , with the goal of reducing sick leave by 50% by the year 2008.

Tripartite discussions were abandoned by the employer representatives who considered them to be too focused on the employers’ responsibilities and lacking ‘the holistic perspective needed to solve the fundamental problems’. Continued discussions between the Swedish government and the trade unions resulted in a number of proposals (pdf file), including measures to favour part-time sick leave rather than full-time sick leave.

The government is convinced that improvements at the workplace are crucial. The Swedish work environment authority (Arbetsmiljöverket) has received extra funding to implement their 2001 systematic work environment management (SWEM) provisions, which require employers to investigate, assess, remedy and monitor both physical and psychosocial hazards of the work environment.

The SWEM guidelines put responsibility on the employer and require the participation of workers’ representatives in a systematic and documented planning of occupational safety and health (OSH) measures in the workplace, with the support of competent OSH services. There is also support for training and developmental issues. Provisions have been issued requiring that companies and organisations include data on sick leave in their annual reports from 1 July 2003.

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