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The fight against increasing sick leave

| Text: Ulla Kindenberg

Sweden and Norway are well off compared to the rest of Europe when one considers the living standard, the working environment, social security and average life expectancy. The economy of these societies is threatened, however, by ill health and overwhelming numbers of sick notes. These numbers are actually topping those from other European countries. Even though the statistics may contain errors, the fight against sick leave tops the agenda.

Absence from work due to ill health, especially illness caused by physical strain and mental stress, have become a major challenge for the Nordic societies. Worst off are Sweden and Norway. In Sweden, for instance, the amount of sick leave was higher than the number of those unemployed last year, and the overwhelming costs are close to more than the community can manage. In 2001, absence due to bad health and early retirement did actually correspond to 800,000 man-labour years – 14 percent of the population of able-bodied workers. The costs are calculated to be some 2,75 million euro a day, or 13 billions a year. In Norway, 7.8 percent of labour reported sick towards the end of 2002.

Now both countries are making efforts to turn this development around. The objective is the same – working conditions are to improve, sick leaves to decrease, and more people back to work. The methods, however, appear somewhat different.

Inclusive Workplace-agreement

In Norway, the government and the social partners have found a common ground, and have set the course towards a working life with “a room for everyone” within the “Tripartite Agreement on a more Inclusive Workplace”, initiated in January 2002 and set to go on until End 2005. The objectives are to reduce the sick leave, to increase the age of retirement, and to get jobs for more people with impaired functionality.

By April 2003, 3,570 work-places with a total of more than 700,000 employees had been approved for participation. That equals about one third of everyone employed in Norway. Each workplace gets its own contact person at one of the 16 centres of working life, with more than 600 consultants established around in the country.

Initial appraisals are positive as regards sick leave, which fell by 10 percent in several places. Efforts to get handicapped persons into the labour market have given less satisfactory results, and attempts to influence the retirement age require more time to be fairly assessed.

In the Inclusive Workplaces, good side effects have been registered, such as improved management, more commitment to work, increased quality of production, and better job satisfaction.

Life Phase Policy

Another effort towards a better working life in Norway has been the emphasis on Life Phase Policy. The Centre for Senior Policy (CSP), is the driving force behind the efforts to encourage “a personnel policy with a life phase perspective”.

Everyone is to be treated equally regardless of age, and given the same opportunities to develop and acquire new knowledge. The theory behind this is that it is more important to consider which phase of life one is in, with less importance being placed on age.

In Sweden, storm warnings about deteriorating health and sick leaves have been dense as fog during recent years. The detailed study regarding “Better Health in Working Life”, which presented a plan of action in 2001, was given much attention. Among other things, it led to a government decision the same year, to embark on a programme with eleven points to combat bad health and reduce the number of sick notes. The target is to reduce the numbers for 2002 by half, before 2008.

This is to be achieved through efforts, both in the short and the long term, to improve working environment and work organisation, to have a more efficient rehabilitation process, by going through the rules of the health insurance, by creating economic incentives for the employers, and by developing research and improve statistics. The individual should become the centre of attention, and the employers’ responsibility for the health situation should be emphasized, and at the same time, the increased costs caused by ill health should be stopped.

In spite of all steps taken, it is quite a challenge to turn the development around. The sick notes alone will cost billions in 2003.

Long-term sick leave increases

Long-term sick leave, which continues to increase, is a major challenge. In the autumn of 2003, more than 135,000 persons had been on sick leave for more than one year. That is

next to half the total amount of sick leaves. Although, the amount of short-term sick leave has decreased somewhat. It is also viewed as a positive sign that the number of part-time sick leaves has increased last year. That is cherished, as the thought behind is to consider more closely what a person can do rather than what she/he cannot. In September 2003 about one third of the sick notes were part-time.

The fact that the right to demand sickness benefits is not time-limited in Sweden is a sensitive political question. The director of the National Social Security Service made an attempt to bring about a discussion based on a one-year limit but to no great avail. It is a small step in that direction, anyhow, when the government suggests that retirement on disability grounds (previously called early retirement) should be reassessed every three years. The trade unions, however, have objected, and the question is far from settled. The government also has plans as to have the employers pay one fourth of the sick leave, for an unlimited period. Today, the employers pay for the first three weeks only.

Amongst others against the backdrop of that menace, trade unions and employers within the industry have plans for some cooperation like the Norwegian Agreement on a more Inclusive Workplace regarding preventive efforts and rehabilitation, as a list of demands to be supervised by an independent authority.

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