Sweden: Work-related health problems

A report in Sweden finds an increasing number of health problems in the workplace, particularly with regard to mental health. It also reveals that occupational level, background and gender are factors influencing the health of workers.

According to the report Ohälsans trappa (368Kb pdf; in Swedish) (‘Steps of illness’), work-related health problems and illnesses are still rising among Swedish employees, and increasingly reflect differences in occupational level, background and gender.

The report is based on a sample from the 2002/03 Living Conditions survey carried out annually by Statistics Sweden, and was commissioned by the Landsorganisationen, the umbrella organisation for 16 associations representing workers within the private and public sectors. The survey conducted face-to-face interviews with 6,800 randomly chosen respondents aged 16 to 64 years. The results show developments in employees’ health from the 1980s to the present: that both psychological and physical health problems have increased in the last 15 years for all employee groups.

Of the 4.1 million employed people in Sweden, 1.7 million suffer from pain in the shoulders and neck, 1.5 million from back or hip pain or sciatica, and 1.3 million from pain in their hands, arms, legs and/or feet; 600,000 Swedish employees suffer from all over pain (i.e. they answered ‘yes’ to all three questions on pain).

Workers experiencing severe pain in shoulders and/or neck (%)

Risk groups

Some workers are more prone to illness than others, and clear gender and occupational differences can be seen. In addition, certain non-Swedish groups, for example, women born outside of the Nordic countries with at least 10 years’ residence, seem more prone to illness and early retirement[s1]. This is probably because they are over-represented in jobs with poor or difficult working conditions.

Differences in occupational level are analysed by profession. Neck and shoulder pain is six times more common among blue-collar workers aged 46-64 years than in a comparative group of professionals. Blue-collar workers in this age group suffer 2.5 times more often from serious long-term health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and back problems, and they are also more likely to smoke, be overweight and exercise less. When it comes to retirement, 47% of blue-collar workers over 60 years of age have taken early retirement, while the comparative figure for white-collar workers is 25%.

Blue-collar women are at the bottom of the ‘health stairs’, with the highest likelihood of illness, while male professionals have the least likelihood of suffering from pain and illness and are generally the most healthy. Female blue-collar workers are 11 times more likely to suffer from ‘pain everywhere’ than male professionals.

Mental health problems have grown dramatically among female employees in particular. Problems such as sleeping difficulties, recurring headaches, tension and stress have increased markedly over the last 15 years, especially among younger female employees (16-29 years). In an earlier survey carried out in 1988/89, 8% of this group answered that they experienced tension, stress and fear; in the latest survey, this figure had risen to 27%. The increase in psychological illness among women is also reflected in their early retirement figures. In 2004, nearly 50% of female employees aged 46-64 years had retired early.

Challenges for the working environment

It seems that likely reasons for the growing problems in psychological well-being are increased work pace and pressure. Having insufficient influence or control over one’s work and the need to constantly exceed a realistic workload lead to stress and feelings of inadequacy. One in two female employees work in frustrating jobs, compared with 32% of men. 40% of women are preoccupied with work outside working hours (29% for men). One in two male workers (48%) have little or no control over their pace of work, while the figure for women is as high as two in three (64%).

The Swedish labour market has gone through considerable structural changes in recent years. As a result, individuals are increasingly worried about job insecurity. The growing number of non-permanent jobs - from 10% to 16% in the last decade - also contributes to this (Aronsson, 2004).

Within the workplace, nearly one in five (19%) of employees can take exercise during working hours, but only one in 10 (9%) actually avail of this opportunity. Those who may be most in need of such exercise - the blue-collar workers whose health rates poorly - feel that they have least access to this facility.


Aronsson, G., ‘Hälsa och utvecklingsmöjligheter i tidsbegränsade anställningar’, in Gustafsson, R. and Lundberg, I. (eds), Arbetsliv och hälsa 2004 , Arbetslivsinstitutet, 2004.

Further EU level research is available on the Foundation’s website concerning health and well-being in the workplace.





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