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Work environment key to Swedish competitiveness

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The work environment is often associated with risks, but now the Swedish government wants to turn the phrase on its head and highlight the positive sides. A good work environment can improve workers' health, lift the business and improve competitiveness. Those are some of the conclusions from the government's national action plan for the work environment which it presented in September.

This national action plan for the work environment was the first of its kind in Sweden. It looks ahead to 2015 and clearly identifies the direction in which the government wants work environments head in the next five years. Several of the recommendations will be acted on during that time period.

"It's an age-old truth that bad work environments have large economic consequences for the individual, the business where he or she works and for society which picks up the bill. We can't afford it, and the work environment is also an important factor when we try to reduce social exclusion," said Minister for Migration Tobias Billström when presenting the action plan as acting minister of Employment. 

Room for people with different starting points

He underlined the fact that Sweden is facing major demographic challenges in the labour market and that everybody's effort was needed. It was therefore important to create good work environments with room for people with different starting points - for instance older people or people with physical handicaps. A good work environment should prevent marginalisation and also help people outside the labour market get back to work. One idea is for the Swedish Work Environment Authority and job centres to subsidise individual work places. Another priority is to increase knowledge on work environment issues by teaching this as early as in college. There is also a desire to teach work environment theory as part of social sciences at university level. The government, which closed down the National Institute for Working Life during the last parliament, also points out the need for some kind of umbrella organisation responsible for the passing on of this knowledge. The shape and location of such an organisation is yet to be decided.

The government also wants to focus on good work environments through the development of an IT system where employers can easily identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own work environment. The result - a kind of work environment grading scale - would then be published on the Swedish Work Environment Authority's homepage. 

Consideration is also given to whether it should be possible to impose sanctions on work environment and working time issues, with a proposal expected in March 2011. 

The action plan highlights the importance of making the improvement of work environments a positive thing. A good work environment should be viewed as a way to attract good quality labour, while having a positive effect on all employees who will then be able to develop the business and make it more competitive. 

"It's important to turn this debate around. Too often the term work environment is synonymous with risks, but we want to turn it on its head and look at a good work environment as an opportunity. It should create good health, improve business, increase production and as a result of that - competitiveness," said Tobias Billström.

Work environment - a question of welfare

The Swedish Work Environment Authority is ultimately responsible for the execution of the action plan. But the plan has so far not resulted in any concrete measures or changes. The Work Environment Authority's director-general, Mikael Sjöberg, wants to wait until is has been put before parliament, in order to take into account its views. A date has yet to be set for this. Sjoberg

"What's most important now is that the action plan highlights the importance of work environments and takes it to the highest political level. It makes possible a debate on the benefits of a good work environment - the fact that it reduces sick leave and motivates workers even into old age. These are things which make countries richer. The work environment becomes part of the debate which is currently taking place in many European countries, on how to safeguard welfare," says Mikael Sjöberg.

At the start of the last parliament the Swedish Work Environment Authority had its budget cut, which resulted in fewer work environment inspectors. The Authority has since been granted extra money which was made permanent in the latest budget. The Authority wields three important tools to secure better work environments - regulations, inspections and information/communication. The action plan points out the importance of information and communication and the need to strengthen these areas, says Mikael Sjöberg. He also welcomes the government's view that there is a need for some kind of umbrella organisation responsible for passing on knowledge. 

"I am positive to this. It's the right thing to do, as it has become more difficult to access relevant information since the axing of the National Institute for Working Life," says Mikael Sjöberg.

The Swedish Employment Office and the Swedish Work Environment Authority are due to present proposals on how they can work together to reduce social exclusion. The results from a pilot screening project will be presented in 2012. But it is doubtful screening of all companies will become reality, says Mikael Sjöberg. It's too expensive. What it does do is provide new methods and new technology which could help reach more work places with information and make work environment issues more visible. The government has also through its action plan expressed interest in developing a work environment grading system.

"We are not strangers to a grading system, but it is difficult. The Danish system has not run entirely painlessly. We also notice a greater political reluctance to grading," says Mikael Sjöberg.

Lack of concrete proposals

The parties to the labour market have met several times to work on the national action plan. The plan also underlines the importance of the role played by the parties to the labour market when it comes to work environments. Hagstrom

"The government has defined the work environment problem approximately in the same way as we have. They want, for instance, to fight social exclusion with a more including working life and to adapt jobs to allow people to stay in work. This is good, but we would like to see concrete measures and also to see a return of the resources which have been taken away from the work with work environments in recent years. We've had a reduction in the number of inspectors and the axing of the National Institute for Working Life," says Ulrika Hagström at TCO.

A good work environment translates into self worth

Ulrika Hagström is positive to the idea that a good work environment can lead to increased competitiveness, but she also thinks this is somewhat construed. You need to work for a better work environment irrespective of what it means for the business' competitiveness, she thinks. Neither is she negative to the grading of companies' work environments, but feels this would be a question of resources. If the resources aren't there, it is better to screen the work environments that are at risk than to screen all of them. 

Several of the parties to the labour market have been critical to both the lack of concrete proposals in the action plan and to the fact that they have not been consulted on the final text. 

"We were allowed to voice our views, but we have not been allowed to see the contents or reflect on it. I am not alone in thinking this is unfortunate," says Ulrika Hagström

Eva Kovar at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise does not share this criticism. The starting point for the cooperation was a consultation aimed at producing an action plan, not to take part in a hearing of proposed legislation. She is also happy with the new action plan. 

"It is offensive and excitingly significant and I hope there will be a continuation of the constructive consultations between parties that listen and learn from what we have to say," says Eva Kovar.

Work environment as a subject

She is particularly positive to the idea of introducing work environment as an education subject for instance in colleges. She hopes to see this happen as soon as possible. She is disappointed over the action plan's lack of more concrete proposals on this issue. The idea is to tailor the subject to different types of students. Young people facing working life for the first time could do well from knowing which regulations they can use to their own advantage, and for the future designers of technology or environments which will become other people's work environments it is important to have a basic knowledge about the importance of those work environments. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, however, is dead against the grading of work environments. The organisation prefers to explore the possibility of giving incentives through the law on insurance against work injury, offering reduced contributions to companies that take their work environments seriously. 

"That would be a better system than a grading system or a smiley system like they have in Denmark. It's expensive to screen all companies and you must also ask yourself what problems you are actually addressing and how this would contribute to a better work environment. We are completely against this," says Eva Kovar.

Facts

On 23 September the Swedish Government presented its national action plan for the work environment for the years 2010 to 2015, with a vote in parliament due in 2013.

It is Sweden's first national action plan on this issue, and come as a result of the EU's recommendations on the issue of work environments. Several strategic goals are identified in the document which will be presented to the Swedish parliament:

- Risks and opportunities in work environments.

- The work environment as part of the fight against social exclusion.

- Work environments' impact on competition and profitability.

- Increased awareness and knowledge on work environments.

The action plan also highlights the importance of consulting the parties to the labour market.

Read the action plan here (in Swedish):

En förnyad arbetsmiljöpolitik med nationell handlingsplan

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