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Sustainable work for a sustainable development

Sustainable work for a sustainable development

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Poul Anker Nielsen

The Nordic countries don’t particularly stand out when you focus on what factors create a sustainable work place. It’s all about being seen and being heard. It’s about working at a speed you can live with, and with resources and tools good enough for the task at hand. And not least – the work must be meaningful. But in a time of perpetual change, is it really possible to create sustainable work places?

”A sustainable work place is somewhere you will go to feeling happy and come back from feeling satisfied. A place you can work all your life without being burnt out, and where you have access to good tools. The tempo mustn’t be too high, and you should have a say in matters and be listened to”, says Hanna Simonsen, a trade union rep at the communal cleaning service Esbjerg Kommune Rengøring in Denmark.

Hanne Simonsen is one of those who go to work feeling happy. She loves her job, and says it is because she’s now got the chance to make a change. She used to be a cleaner, but now she works full time as the trade union rep, and her main task is to improve the working conditions for her colleagues at Esbjerg Kommunale Rengøring.

It started four years ago. The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) was granted EU funds to carry out the project ”Heading for a sustainable work place”. The idea was to shape the content of the increasingly common notion of ”Corporate social responsibility”, CSR.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Danish business community launched a debate on the social responsibility of businesses, and LO realised the importance of not letting the business community set the agenda alone. LO wanted to highlight which role working life played in the social responsibility of creating a sustainable society. The goal was to establish development processes in the participating work places which would further sustainability, work place democracy and social responsibility.

With the help from the labour movement’s educational organisation, fourteen work places in different regions and within different sectors were chosen to take part. They were all asked to reflect on and give concrete examples of what sustainability meant to them.

One of those work places was Esbjerg Kommune Rengøring, with their 280 employees.
”At that time we had an incredibly high level of sick leave. The tempo was high, and our colleagues were being worn down physically and psychologically. Many did cleaning jobs in the evenings and overnight. We were basically not very visible”, says Hanna Simonsen.

Hanne Simonsen

 The first thing she did was to create a more hands-on term for sustainability, as she re-named the project “well-being through cleaning”. Then various activities were set in motion to make people aware of and prevent problems, thus creating a working environment that would reduce sick leave. The workers have taken centre stage. They’ve been offered courses to increase their competence and activities like gymnastics and swimming in order to prevent sickness. They have tried out technical aids to improve the ergonomic situation for each worker. Those with a different ethnic background (around 13 per cent) have been offered the chance to study Danish.

”In the beginning we hardly knew what the project was all about, so it has been a slow process. It takes time to get used to being more visible, but everyone is glad it has happened. The staff has gone along with this from the start, and they now realise what they say actually reaches the employer, and the other way around. The road between employee and employer has been shortened. In the past when I came to a work place, they would say ”it’s fine here, Hanne”. Now they say, “this can’t be
right””, she says.

Photo: Poul Anker Nielsen

Well-being through cleaning: Ergonomist Ane Bach Stisen is testing Sonia Lau.

After two years, sick leave was down by ten days per employee per year. The mood has changed and the employer has granted money to make the project permanent. Now they have an adviser on well-being who’s educated in ergonomics. For Hanne Simonsen the project is now a full-time job in continuous development.

”If you get something new off the ground, you keep developing new ideas. I’ve got ten balls in the air at any one time”, she says.

The project also brings the participating companies together at conferences, where they share their sometimes very varying experiences. It turned out the workers from each company defined the term sustainability in pretty different ways. It has been a part of the project to look closer at these differences.

”There has been a great difference in how people put into words what is important for a sustainable working life. We wanted to make people think broader. For instance, what will it really mean if you hire someone with a physical handicap? What role does our work place play in society as a whole? We’ve wanted sustainability in working life to be applied in practice. A job where people develop and a sustainable working life goes hand in hand for sure, but sustainability also suggests something else. It gives meaning to the individual”, says Karsten Bøjesen, project leader at the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO).

Working Life Barometer

The hunt for the good work place goes on across Europe, but manifests itself in different ways. For a long time now, the focus has been on what makes people ill, but more and more the focus has been shifted to looking at what makes people well. The goal is having as many people as possible working for longer, with as little sick leave as possible.

Demographic changes have made this a necessity, and in many countries – not least in Sweden and Norway – the high levels of sick leave, and the costs that go with them, are of concern. And it is well documented that something is wrong in working life. In Sweden, for instance, one million people of working age aren’t part of the labour force, many of them because they’re sick or have taken early retirement. And this year’s Working Life Barometer in Finland shows half of all Finns want to work less, despite several comprehensive national programmes to improve the quality of working life and working environments.

The survey Working Life Barometer has been carried out every year since 1992, partly asking the same questions year on year, but also with new questions to reflect the spirit of the times. Some new questions include what people think of the meaning of work, and their judgement of the quality of their work place.

Paradoxically, the Finns give their workplaces pretty good marks – an average of 7.9 points out of ten possible. But despite this, half of all employees want to work less. People don’t want to quit work, but, reduce their workload.
The survey also shows that the demands of working life are getting tougher, and that the psychological strain is increasing.

”Many like working, and work hard. Maybe they work too much, thinking they won’t be working all their lives”, says Pekka Ylöstalo, a researcher who’s been assigned to the Working Life Barometer since it began.

An increasingly well-educated work force will also demand tasks that are more fun and more interesting to perform. Nobody wants to be a robot, as he puts it.

”And since 11 September 2001 we also notice a greater sense of insecurity. While we cannot directly link that to the World Trade Center, we do see that people are more scared of losing their jobs now, ending up bankrupt.

They’re insecure and don’t know what will happen in the future”, says Pekka Ylöstalo.

He finds it striking how slowly working life changes. He underlines the importance of finding trust and gaining influence in the work place. But to build up trust takes time. There is no one solution to that, it must be built as part of a collective process. 

Long-term healthy

Participation, influence, rights and resources to match demands. They’re all keywords popping up again and again in the conversation and research on the good work place. Gunnar Aronsson is professor at the National Institute for
Working Life in Stockholm. He also uses these words to characterise a good work place. He has just decided to start looking into what makes us long-term healthy rather than what makes us longterm ill – the latter being a far more common field of research.

One of his starting points is that health is more than lack of sickness, and that there are issues at work as well as at home which makes people long-term well. A person who is long-term well is someone who has not had any sick leave over a two years’ period. In Gunnar Aronsson’s research, those people accounted for 28 per cent out of 2000 employees. So what are the factors that make us well? To receive support from your boss when work feels hard is important. The same goes for having the chance to do a good job and to be happy with the quality of what you’ve done. Other important factors for good health in working life is to have clear goals, to be informed and to be noticed, and to be appreciated for what you do.

Private life of course also plays an important role. The stress of a lot of domestic work will increase the chance of sickness. The survey also shows how private economy is important to health. Those who live on very limited funds, run a greater risk of falling ill.

Occupations do play a role, and the survey shows people working with computers, technology and office workers are more likely to be long-term healthy than people working in care, schools and the industry.

Emerging from all this seems to be a new focus, to complement the debate and research on working life. The solution to the problems surrounding working life isn’t purely to get rid of the bad factors. It also involves understanding and learning from the things that actually work, the good examples. That way the work place can also be understood as part of a bigger picture, namely how it fits into the drive towards a sustainable society.

Interpreting sustainability

Some years ago the Council of Nordic Ministers presented a report on the social responsibility of businesses. At that time all questions concerning working life were overshadowed by questions on social, economical and environmental sustainability. Now there’s a new Council of Ministers project on sustainability, this time focusing on working life. Bjørg Aase Sørensen, professor at the Work Research Institute in Oslo, is one of the project leaders. Representatives from Nordic research communities are looking at how the parties, authorities and researchers define a sustainable development of working life.

Where do people agree and disagree, and to which extent have the areas that are important to focus on been identified? In Norway they’ve asked people from various milieus what they attach to the term sustainability. The answers were concrete and down to earth interpretations, says Bjørg Aase Sørensen. The researchers also assessed whether it is possible to make more permanent all the changes that mark today’s working life.

”People feel it is meaningful to talk about sustainability, and the term is closely linked to the feeling of consistency. Many don’t want to be part of a system where they’re forced to bargain with their own values, they don’t want to just collect their salary without thinking of the consequences of what it is they’re actually doing. Sustainability is also about integrity, about feeling complete”, says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

She refers to research carried out in the health sector, which showed that those who felt they were able to maintain a high integrity and who experienced consistency were far likely to not be taking sick leave.

Bjørg Aase Sørensen feels it is essential to put working life, with all its re-organisations, into the context of sustainability. It is a proactive way of approaching working life, and lays the foundations for a good work place.

“A re-organisation never ends up better than the process which led to it”, says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

The Danish LO also thinks all work towards a sustainable working life is about the process. For their part, the project ”Heading for a sustainable work place” is over. In her introduction to a conference marking the end of the project, LO-secretary Marie-Louise Knuppert wrote:

”We have learned that the perfect sustainable work place doesn’t exist. Sustainability is a vision – a perspective and a point of orientation – which work places can focus on and move towards. But there is no clearly defined finishing
line to mark that you have achieved sustainability, nor is there a map for how to get there.”

She then concludes that the most important thing is that all those affected by changes in the work place have been part of the process of making those changes.

Change is a first motion, a little step towards the greater goal of sustainability.


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