Sick leave caused by work overload

A new study shows Swedish white-collar staff are increasingly taking time off because of stress and being overloaded with work. A survey involving 2,305 safety representatives of the white-collar trade union, Unionen, found that workload-related sick leave had occurred at 4 out of 10 workplaces. More than 81% of the workplaces reported staff regularly worked overtime. Some 41% of respondents said employees had called in sick during the past year because of work overload.


White-collar staff in Sweden are increasingly taking time off through stress and because they are overloaded with work according to a new study (in Swedish, 563KB PDF). The research was conducted by Annelie Carlberg and Björle Sjöholm in 2012 on behalf of white-collar union Unionen. The report concludes that stress and workload-related issues are on the increase.

The survey was completed by 2,305 safety representatives.

Key findings

Among the report’s main findings is that 41% of the safety representatives claimed they knew of employees who had called in sick over the past year due to being overloaded with work. The report says the trend is towards increasing sick leave caused by work overload.

A majority of respondents, in particular female safety representatives, felt that stress and workload-related issues were the most important area for work environment improvement. A majority (81%) said white-collar workers regularly worked overtime.

The survey provided strong evidence that these issues are not being addressed seriously in efforts to improve the work environment. This is despite the fact that respondents considered tackling stress and workload-related concerns to be the most important workplace improvement issue. A slightly higher proportion of women (62%) than men (55%) felt this was the most important work environment issue.

Insufficient measures to tackle the issues

The study concluded that tackling workload problems was not considered a priority in the workplace despite its negative effect on health. Some 37% of respondents said concerns over working time were not being addressed by managers, while 28% were unsure if the problem was being addressed or investigated.

Making a risk assessment analysis of workload factors would be one way a company could show it was making efforts to improve this area of the work environment. The Unionen study maps whether risk assessments are made on how working time influences health levels.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of the respondents said such risk assessments were not being made. A slightly higher proportion (29%) said they were made but only when health issues were reported. Only 15% said risk assessments were made regularly. In this instance, ‘regularly’ refers to annual and biennial assessments, and assessments made with a frequency lower than every two years.

Few workplaces have an action plan

The study goes on to show that few workplaces have any planned course of action in place to tackle and reduce stress and workload-related issues when they are reported. A lower proportion of respondents (22%) compared with studies in previous years said that their employer had introduced a written action plan. A total of 31% stated that no such plan was in place, while 46% said they were unsure whether a plan had been compiled.

Given that 41% say that workers called in sick due to stress and workload issues, the study concludes that stress and work-related problems should be included to a greater extent in efforts to improve the work environment. Further research on how working conditions affect sick leave is suggested by the authors.

Socio-Political Executive at Unionen, Cecilia Beskow, said in an article (in Swedish) on the union’s website that long hours were a health hazard. She added:

… when overtime is systematically used, sick leave increases. Overtime is meant for temporary work intensive periods and is not to be used as an excuse for fewer workers to do more work. The balance between work and leisure is an urgent health issue for white-collar workers. Strengthened regulations regarding unpaid overtime are one of the most important areas in the collective bargaining for the union.


The study does not only show that stress and a high workload cause sick leave in the workplace. It also concludes that 81% of all white-collar workers systematically work overtime. There is an upward trend in workload-related sick leave.

These findings are likely to have an influence on the focal points of the collective bargaining process during 2013, making the balance between work and leisure a priority. One suggested measure is to restrict the negotiation possibilities of unpaid overtime.


Unionen (2012), Arbetsmiljöbarometern. Vi behöver en psykosocial föreskri (563KB PDF), Unionen, Stockholm.

Emilia Johansson and Angelica Idenving, Oxford Research




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