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Integrity - a new term in Norwegian labour law

Integrity - a new term in Norwegian labour law

| Text and Photo: Björn Lindahl

The Nordic countries set up labour inspection authorities to protect workers against accidents, dangerous chemicals and excessive spells of work. But how do labour inspection work when the work place is in transformation? During times of change so many things happen simultaneously that the employees’ integrity is threatened.

"More and more workers experience mat they cannot do their job without being forced to compromise on their own standards for how they want the job to be done", says Ole Jacob Thomassen, inspector at the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority division Østfold/Akershus.

"During recent years we’ve been investigating how reorganisations have been carried out in different companies, and how they influence the psycho-social working environment. We’ve looked at municipal administrations, hospitals and universities. Our investigations have shown that we must take very seriously the question of integrity in the working environment. The consequences for people’s health can turn out to be significant."

It is easy to understand that nurses feel they haven't got enough time to give sufficient care to patients. TV-series come to mind, where patients are being wheeled through corridors with a team of screaming doctors and nurses around them. But in a municipality? What could be stressful there?

"It's the same feeling of not being able to stay on top of what needs doing. A handling officer can have a hundred applications in the in-tray He or she knows that every single decision has big consequences for that person's life, but there is not enough time to do the job properly."

"It's a huge mental strain on the handling officer who knows that his or her decision can have fatal consequences for the person concerned."

Staff are often down-sized during reorganisations. Those who are left are often given more to do, while at the same time having to learn new routines and participate in a lot of meetings which sometimes feel unnecessary.

It turns into a race against the clock, and those small breaks which used to ease the pressure a bit, are lost.

"Nursing staff complain that they have no time to follow patients to the toilet. But often they don't even have time to go themselves", says Ole Jacob Thomassen.

Integrity is a new term within industrial welfare legislation. But the term has existed in slightly different shapes within Nordic research on work environments for the past ten years. The Work Environment Authority in Örebro have been among the pioneers.

They started to study how changeovers affected the working environment as far back as in 1998. They launched the term 'frustration' in Sweden.

"By frustration we mean the experiences and feelings which emerge in organisations whose employees perform more or less independent tasks. When the natural driving force behind taking responsibility showing commitment and professionalism is taken away from the employee, you get psychological and social reactions which in the long run we feel are unhealthy and make people feel rejected. Frustration should not be confused with mental strains which you can recover from with the right support and time off", says the booklet "From frustration to complete exhaustion".

The research was launched when work places and various professions which usually enjoyed a low numbers of sick leave, suddenly began coming out top of the statistics. The experienced, informed and committed workers- the ones who were never off sick - were the ones who 'burned out'.

Norway's new Working Environment Act, which came into force in January 2006, includes for the first time a chapter on integrity:

"The work shall be arranged so as to preserve the employees’ integrity and dignity", it says. This means that the labour inspection authorities can take action when employees must compromise with their own conscience at work to such a degree that it leads to ill health 

The Labour Inspection

Authority in Østfold/Akershus have run several campaigns to focus on the consequences of reorganisations. The campaigns have highlighted the integrity issue and made it even more important.

"We work in a new way where we talk not only with the managers and the health and safety officer, but also to the employees in groups. During these group conversations it is very common that people talk a lot about what a strain it is not to be able to carry out their duties in a satisfactory manner", says Ole Jacob Thomassen.

The Norwegian Work Research Institute has mapped working conditions nationally in Norwegian hospitals. The survey shows that one in four workers feel their integrity at work is not being looked after. The survey analysis showed three factors that were perceived as being important to integrity:

  • social support from colleagues
  • the feeling of being part of the decision making process
  • and to be respected as an employee.

The survey showed that 40 per cent out of the nearly 3.000 hospital employees asked, had suffered head aches, fatigue out of the ordinary problems with falling or staying asleep, anxiety, uneasiness, nervousness, restlessness, depression, or felt sad or downbeat a couple of times a week or more often.

After its inspections at the Østfold hospital, the Labour Inspection Authority concluded the hospital did not have a satisfactory system to discover and remedy health-damaging time pressure.

As a consequence, the Labour Inspection Authority warns in a letter that it will demand that the hospital maps the experiences and causes of time pressure, and that it carries out what is necessary to improve conditions.

"Time pressure is the one biggest factor which threatens the employees' integrity hence our demands. This is still a new field for the Labour Inspection Authority. We must develop relevant ways of identifying problems surrounding the employees' integrity. We have an educational challenge to demonstrate how important this question is to the individual. But it is equally important to die company if you were to look at it in a longer perspective", says Ole Jacob Thomassen.

"Unfortunately, there tends to be less focus on the working environment during times of change, while at the same time the psycho-social risks are increasing. That’s why it is important for management to take responsibility for safeguarding the employees integrity Employees can legitimately demand that it happens. We will demand that the working environment act be followed in this area."


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