Public employers ordered to act against difficult working conditions

According to a recent survey, during the 1990s, Swedish employees have been exposed to increasing stress at work. This trend is especially marked in the public sector, where the Labour Inspectorate has intervened in several cases lately. For example, a local authority was ordered in December 1997 under penalty of a fine of SEK 2 million to improve the situation for a group of social welfare secretaries before the end of June 1998.

According to a large-scale survey conducted by Statistics Sweden (Statistiska Centralbyrån, SCB) on behalf of the National Board of Occupational Safety and Health (Arbetarskyddsstyrelsen), stress in working life has increased during the 1990s. The main findings include the following:

  • a majority (58.6%) of all workers who had been in the same job for five years stated that the pace of work had increased during that time;
  • the share of workers who felt that they had far too much to do had increased from 49.7% to 52.8% between 1989 and 1995;
  • during the same period, those who had so much to do that they had to miss their their lunch, work overtime or bring work home every week increased from 31% to 35.8%; and
  • the trend was especially marked in the public sector and most of all inhealth and social work, where 69.8% felt that the work rate had increased and 58.5% thought that they had far too much to do. Also the share who felt that their work was mentally trying had increased most in health and social services - from 60.4% to 64.9%.

Illness due to mental strain

The SCB study concerns the situation up to 1995, but there is nothing indicating that the trend has changed since. In late 1997, the Labour Inspectorate (Yrkesinspektionen) intervened against several public employers, and in a couple of cases even issued injunctions to improve the psychological aspects of employees' working conditions, to make them consistent with the Work Environment Act.

One example is the injunction against the social insurance office for Östergötland County. According to a report to the Labour Inspectorate, an employee at the office had fallen severely ill due to mental strain at work. When inspecting the working conditions, the Inspectorate found that there was an imbalance between the workload and the number of staff, and that the employees were exposed to heavy mental strain and stress.

The employer answered that it was aware of the problems, but that the activities of the social insurance office are decided by political decisions at national level and the citizens' need for benefits administered by the office. Furthermore the employer's opportunities to employ more officers is limited, as the administration is financed through the state budget. Within these limits, the employer was however doing what it could do to improve the working conditions by improving work organisation and transferring resources from administrative tasks to the handling of insurance cases. When these measures are completed, 16 full-time workers will have been set free to handle insurance cases, the office judged.

In an injunction, the Labour Inspectorate ordered the employer to fulfil these intentions before 1 November 1998. It must also show that this is enough to attain a balance between the workload and the number of staff, so that the workload is adapted to each worker's mental aptitude. Furthermore, it must create procedures for evaluating how changes in the office's activity will influence the work environment, and draw up an action programme for preventing harmful mental strain on its employees for the future. Both the procedures and the action programme should be in writing.

Employees constantly offended

In the social insurance case, the employer has accepted the requirements of the Labour Inspectorate, but another employer, the municipality of Gothenburg, has not. By an injunction issued in December 1997, the municipality was ordered under penalty of a fine of SEK 2 million to take a number of measures, some of them before 28 February 1998 and the rest before the end of June, to improve the situation for the social welfare secretaries in the district of Bergsjön.

For years there has been a bad relationship between the social welfare secretaries and the politicians in the district's social welfare committee. On several occasions employees broke down during the meetings of the committee, and a majority of them have reported symptoms typical for people exposed to stress - in one case, severe vascular spasm. The basic conflict concerns the interpretation of the Social Services Act which states that if a person's needs cannot be otherwise provided for, he or she is entitled to social assistance which grants him or her a reasonable standard of living. The social welfare secretaries, who submit the reports on matters concerning social assistance, point out that they are obliged to comply with case law from the administrative courts, as well as the reports of experts in other fields - such as physicians, psychologists and so on. The politicians, who decide whether an application for assistance shall be granted or not, want to interpret the Act more narrowly than the officers do.

The Labour Inspectorate found that the politicians constantly question and belittle the professional competence of the social welfare secretaries in a brusque and offensive manner which it categorised as "sheer mobbing". As it is contrary to the Work Environment Act to treat workers like this, the employer must bring the offences to an end.

The employer has appealed to the National Board of Occupational Safety and Health, which will need several months to decide if it will confirm or modify the injunction.

Commentary

The two cases related above ultimately have their roots in political decisions aimed at limiting public expenditure. However it is a general observation that, while many people are unemployed, those who have a job are exposed to an increasing stress due to economic measures or the requirements that "lean" production confronts them with. What makes the problems more obvious in professions involved in the exercise of public authority is that their tasks are laid down in legislation and that their work has a great influence on the lives of individual citizens. The employee is squeezed between the requirements of the politicians, the requirements of the law and the needs and wishes of the clients. (Kerstin Ahlberg, NIWL)

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