Swedish work life has trust and flexibility — and that’s a problem sometimes

During my work life, I’ve had three professions which always make the top ten of most stressful careers in Forbes’ annual ranking.

While I have never been close to the ambition of joining the military — which top the list -, I’ve had the good fortune of doing work that is engaging and exciting. During different periods of my life, how I looked at what place work is supposed to take in my life has changed, from being proudly ‘married to my job’ to wondering why do I have to work at all (yes, some healthier variations in between, too). I’ve lived and worked in five different countries before moving to Sweden, a country with a lot to be proud of in many ways — including work life:

- Unions have been influential and instrumental for employees’ well-being. There is collective bargaining and a generous social security system, subsidized by high taxes.

- There is a governmental agency — “Arbetsmiljöverket”, i.e. Swedish Work Environment Authority — which ensures employees’ well-being. That results in many rules, among which, the obligation of workplaces with over 50 employees to have a room where people can lock themselves in, roll down the shades and lie on the sofa or bed, when they need a nap or feel unwell.

- Most organizations contribute monetarily for the employees’ health costs (as defined by the Swedish Tax Authority as “pulshöjande aktiviteter”, i.e. activities that heighten your pulse). Employees must present a receipt for their costs, which means that they only benefit from it if they really take on a gym membership, for example. Many organizations even contribute one hour of the 40 hours’ week for employees to exercise, a weekly 60 minutes’ bonus which can only be enjoyed if exercising.

This is a country with a high level of trust — a wonderful lubricant for business, no doubt -, many jobs have flexible work hours and many others can be done from home or your favorite café. In the past two years, a few organizations have started testing the six hours’ work day and are now assessing how that affected productivity, sick leave and other parameters. Some of those testing the shorter work days even have a deal with their staff: the office hours are cut, but no one comes near Facebook.

Now for the bad news.

Despite all this, in the period 2010–2015 (according to ‘Försäkringskassan’, i.e. the National Agency for Social Security, there has been an increase of 59 percent in cases of people on sick leave of 14 days or longer, due to work related psychiatric problems. The topic of work-life balance makes headlines virtually every day and many research organizations (including the Karolinska Institute, which every year awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine) are busy trying to make sense of this new reality: we’re flexible and able to decide when and where (and sometimes how) to work but we feel worse than before. Or, our statistics capture reality in a more truthful way.

This lack of boundaries puts extra responsibility on self-control and that’s not always easy to manage — especially for people like me, who have exciting, though stress-heavy, professions. But it has other implications in terms of working culture and management, who must define tangible and measurable goals for each of their staff members, so that they know when their work is done and leisure (or, indeed, domestic obligations) begins.

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