Collaboration for a good working environment

Results from the Norwegian project ‘3-2-1 Together for a good working environment – 3 parties, 2 branches, 1 goal’ demonstrate that tripartite collaboration works when there is mutual understanding of roles and responsibilities among managers and safety representatives. A good safety culture and agreement on more inclusive working, together with greater focus on middle managers, led to a better working environment and reduced absenteeism in meat companies and nursing homes.

Background

The project, ‘3-2-1 Together for a good working environment – 3 parties, 2 branches, 1 goal’, was a collaboration between the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority (Arbeidstilsynet), the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Organization (NAV) and the social partners. It was initiated by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in 2007 and completed in 2010. The purpose of this project was to:

  • trial a tripartite cooperation between the government and social partners;
  • reduce absenteeism and increase the retirement age in two selected sectors, the meat and poultry industry, and nursing homes.

The project had the following three goals:

  • to improve the working environment, reduce absenteeism and increase the actual retirement age in two selected sectors with major staff turnover problems;
  • to test whether bringing about these changes can be assisted by a greater degree of industry adaptation and ownership of efforts to identify working methods and follow-up measures;
  • to contribute to the development of a fruitful and progressive form of cooperation between the authorities and social partners.

Due to high absenteeism, nursing homes and the meat/poultry sector were chosen as the target industries; 21 nursing homes (private sector and public sector) and 10 meat companies were recruited to the project. The choice of industries was based on NAV statistics on sick leave and a report from the National Surveillance System for Work Environment and Occupational Health (NOA) on new recipients of disability benefits (Eriksen and Mehlum, 2007).

For both sectors, the largest groups of medical problems connected with early retirement and sick leave were musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accompanied by mental disorders.

Project design

All the companies entered into a written agreement with the labour inspectorate, which was managing the project, agreeing to establish tripartite cooperation in business and participate in planned joint activities in the project. All were IA-enterprises (358Kb PDF), with the exception of one meat company. An IA-enterprise is one that has signed a tripartite Agreement on a More Inclusive Working Life (IA Agreement) with NAV. Under this agreement, the employer and employees of the company commit themselves to work systematically together to achieve the objectives of a more inclusive workplace.

The nursing homes and meat companies that took part in the project were of differing size and had different forms of operation, different challenges and different requirements driving their development. Nevertheless, they were asked to set goals and to work to develop leadership and collaboration. Systematic health, environment and safety work was chosen as a priority area for meat companies, while the nursing homes were asked to work on competence development.

All the organisations agreed to carry out two working environment surveys (QPS Nordic) under the auspices of the National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI) at the beginning and end of the project.

At the start of the project, the authorities and other social partners invited the managers, union representatives and safety representatives to regional and sectoral meetings where various tools for development, systematic safety and IA work were presented and cooperation was established.

Results and conclusions

Many positive results were seen in the 31 organisations that participated in the project. For example:

  • sick leave fell from 9.9% to 3% in two years at one meat and poultry company, Finsbråten Eidsvoll A/S;
  • Lindeberg nursing homes experienced a better working environment and happier employees who were keener to praise each other.

The overall results show that collaboration works when there is a mutual understanding of roles and responsibilities among middle managers, shop stewards and safety representatives. A common and objective understanding of the development of the business is needed, while regular meeting places adapted to daily operations must be established for interaction and practical action.

The results also show that companies should focus more on middle managers because they are key personnel in efforts to improve the working environment and reduce sickness absence. Companies should take steps to ensure that middle managers:

  • receive adequate training in personnel work and management;
  • have time to exercise leadership as their training and coaching gives them greater confidence in this role.

A well-adjusted health, environment and safety (HES) programme and IA work can help managers to stay focused on the working environment and their staff. Systems for HES and IA work must be adapted to the business, be easily available to all and user-friendly. The parties involved in the project also agreed that:

  • sufficient expertise is required to master the tasks involved in the work and to perform the job well;
  • competence development needs to cover everyone (at all levels) in the business.

Skills development can encompass many fields such as HES, IA, expertise, communication and collaboration and role clarification skills (including increasing the competence of safety and union representatives).

Reference

Eriksen, T. and Mehlum, I.S. (2007), Nye mottakere av uføreytelser i 2005 fordelt på næring, kjønn og alder [New recipients of disability benefits in 2005 by industry, gender and age], NOA Report 1/2007, Statens arbeidsmiljøinstitutt, Oslo.

Bjørn Tore Langeland, National Institute of Occupational Health

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