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Anniken Hauglie at the Nordic council of ministers - changing focus on working environments

Anniken Hauglie at the Nordic council of ministers - changing focus on working environments

| Tekst: Berit Kvam Foto: Håkon Jacobsen

A changing labour market means new demands and challenges for the labour market's parties, politicians and society as a whole. This formed the backdrop when Anniken Hauglie hosted a conversation during the Nordic labour ministers' meeting in Oslo recently. The opening theme was how working environments influence productivity.

"Lately the focus on working life conditions have centred on how to stop work-related crime and social dumping. We will now move the focus onto the continuous efforts to improve working environments; what creates good, productive workplaces and what impact a good working life has on workplace cooperation," Anniken Hauglie said when she hosted a tripartite conversation on working environments and competitiveness.

"Do we have enough knowledge and awareness about what works and what doesn't, in order for us to maintain a world-leading working environment?" Norway's Minister for Employment asked. To help explore the issue she had invited Pål Molander, Director General at the National Institute of Occupational Health, to present a keynote address on the topic 'The working environment's importance for Nordic competitiveness'.

Pål Molander

"Do our measures address the challenges well enough?" he asked in his presentation and answered himself by pointing to a tendency in the Nordic region for taking the working environment for granted.

"Is it time we woke up, now that we are supposed to prepare for a new working life? Is it time to look after our gold - what has been our competitive advantage for so long?"

One of the worrying things is that a 'good working environment' these days is often linked to being offered perks like private health insurance, exercise or mindfulness during working hours. This has been proven to have little effect on working environments. He felt it was better to focus on working tasks and how work is organised.

"Perhaps it is time to focus a bit more on this as we face major change both globally and within the Nordic region,” Pål Molander said, describing a reality which most of those present recognised.

Nordic countries are all doing very well: Education levels are high, they are topping international surveys on happiness, they enjoy generous welfare systems, low levels of corruption, high levels of trust, they are leaders on digitalisation and workplace gender equality, productivity is high, employment levels are high, people retire late and the Nordics come out top in working environment studies.

Despite all this, the focus is skewered. Demands for systems and documentation have contributed to a feeling of tiredness in many workplaces, and breaks with cakes have become synonymous with a good working environment. But Pål Molander challenges:

"We are in the middle of a paradigm shift when it comes to technology, where focus is now on automation, digitalisation, artificial intelligence. This shift presents us with challenges and opportunities. There are also huge developments within biotechnology, energy and material technology, and we are ahead here. We also see changes to employment models and an increase in work-related crime."

Nordic gold

In the Nordic region we can face these challenges as long as we protect what he calls the Nordic gold, but Molander warned: The Nordics are more exposed than other countries. 

"Nordic countries are high cost countries and must therefore expect a lot from workers in order to stay competitive in an increasingly globalised world. International studies show that more is expected when it comes to tempo, the amount of work and emotional demands in Nordic countries than in other comparable EU countries. We manage this in the Nordic region by empowering employees.

“Our golden formula is a high level of autonomy and control over your own work situation.

"We know a lot about what contributes to work engagement and what contributes to sick leave. An active work situation with a high degree of control leads to good health and work engagement, and higher productivity. Without that control, high expectations at work represent one of the greatest risk factors we have for work related sick leave and disability.

"This has been the Nordic gold standard - the question is whether we can maintain it in a changing labour market," says Pål Molander, who points to several challenges.

"There has been massive focus on #metoo lately. This also reflects some of the culture and climate in the workplace.

"High employment rates also means that we include more vulnerable individuals.

"It is not the case, as many claim, that you get well through working. For that you need a good working environment, especially for vulnerable individuals who have a need to be included. A bad working environment can actually damage your health. At the same time, the Nordic countries' generous welfare systems are dependent on high employment levels. This is why we need a new narrative; the working environment is about the content of the work," says Molander.

"The working environment has been an underrated tool in the social debate. Managing to balance autonomy and control, management culture and social support has given the Nordic region a competitive advantage."

Molander ends his story by pointing to the high employment rate which the Nordic welfare societies are so dependent on.

"The working environment is a crucial factor for achieving high employment rates. This has been absent from the debate. Why is this not higher on the political agenda as we enter the future of working life? Pål Molander challenged.

In addition to Nordic ministers responsible for working environments, the following were also present: Kristina Jullum Hagen, Head of the Department of Labour Market at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), Magnus Gissler, General Secretary of The Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) and Geir Lyngstad Strøm, Senior Advisor at The Confederation of Unions for Professionals (Unio).

The first to comment was Lasse Boje, Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Danish Ministry of Employment. He agreed with Pål Molander's assessment.

"Denmark completely agrees with this description of where the strengths of the Nordic working life lie."

He also agreed that a new working life narrative was needed.  

Denmark's expert committee

That is why the Danish government has appointed an expert committee tasked with reviewing everything the labour market's parties and the authorities are doing in relation to improving the working environment. It will look at all the measures that have been applied, and study how things are organised.

"This is a proper review aimed at documenting what works and what doesn't," says Lasse Boje.

The committee is headed by former Finance Minister Pia Gellerup. The labour market's parties and experts are all involved in the work which is scheduled to finish in mid-2018.

Magnus Gissler, General Secretary of the NFS, and Senior Advisor Geir Lyngstad Strøm from Unio, represented Nordic employees during the debate on working environments and their importance for competitiveness. Both largely agreed with the way Pål Molander described reality and they were curious about what the Danish expert committee would conclude.

Health and safety

Magnus Gissler underlined that the working environment is about health and safety at the end of the day. 

“When you talk about productivity and developing the work, it is about the social dialogue and linked to the workplace, and based on how conditions are in the workplaces.”

Geir Lyngstad Strøm focused on the main issue: the importance of working environments when it comes to competitiveness within the Norwegian and Nordic model, and the way working life and the welfare state are organised.

He highlighted Molander’s argument on the connection between autonomy and expectations.

“An important factor is the opportunity to have a highly educated labour force which enjoys a high level of autonomy at work, and which can also tolerate high expectations. That balance is important. The two are linked.”

His worry is that the globalised economy and the digital economy might challenge the level of autonomy.

“That is when it becomes difficult to see how you can maintain the same level of productivity. If you have more control and expected loyalty, we don’t believe it can be combined with a high degree of productivity.

“Molander’s main point is to focus on the working environment as an important factor for running an efficient business. But there is a danger here, as we see in the Work Research Institute’s 2016 barometer measuring joint decision making. It shows that in 2016 the number of workers who experience a high level of control fell from 89 to 77 percent, with 12 percentage points, compared with figures from 2009. In 2016, 45 percent of the respondents said the labour market was taking a more authoritarian direction.

“10 percent thought it was heading in a more democratic direction. We need to be aware of this tendency if we are to preserve the Norwegian and Nordic model,” said Geir Lyngstad Strøm.

“The working environment is about more than safety. It is often about preventing ill health, role conflicts, emotional demands, demands that do not reflect the resources available. It is about the way work is organised and not about what surrounds the work. The challenge now is to put this into practice. If we manage to do that, we can increase employment rates while also increasing productivity. It would be a good starting point for preserving the Nordic model,” said Unio’s Geir Lyngstad Strøm.

Employers agree

Kristina Jullum Hagen from the NHO also agreed that efforts to improve the working environment have become too focused on systems and demands.

“I think we share this view of reality to a large degree. If work with improving working environments becomes too technical, we end up side-tracking it,” she argued, and supported the idea of agreeing on a new narrative for the working environment. 

This must also lead to changes in the way the occupational health authorities and the Labour Inspection Authority work. All the players must pull together if we are to develop a new understanding of what the work to improve the working environment entails, she underlines.

Sweden’s Minister for Employment Ylva Johansson shared Pål Molander’s description of the working environment’s importance. However, according to Ylva Johansson, Sweden has been using a lot of resources lately in order to improve the working environment, by focusing on work. They have developed a new regulatory framework for organisational and social working environments and presented a new regulation for systematically improving working environments.

Finland’s Pirkko Mattila, Minister of Social Affairs and Health informed her collegues about the initiative for a global path towards a better working environment that Finland presented at the World Congress on Safety & Health at Work in Singapore. 

Anniken Hauglie

during the labour ministers' meeting in Oslo. Here next to Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers (above).

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