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Working hours: a hot topic for the Labour Inspection Authority director

Working hours: a hot topic for the Labour Inspection Authority director

| Text: Berit Kvam, Photo: The Labour Inspection Directorate

Ingrid Finboe Svendsen's dream is to create a popular drive for a better work environment. The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority has often been in the spotlight for dealing with cases of social dumbing, but the Authority's director wants to showcase the full scope of what the organisation does. And this is where Facebook comes in.

"My dream is that more people start thinking how important our work environment is, and that more people learn more about what is needed in order to create a good work environment. It's what we as workers are part of each and every working day, and that's why it is so important that everybody contributes," says Ingrid Finboe Svendsen, director at the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority.

Her guess is that working hours will remain a hot topic for some time. It's all about work-life balance, invisible working hours, dream rotas and full time employment. Many want a so-called oil rota; i.e. work long shifts for two weeks and then have three weeks off. But the director is not too keen on the idea:

"We have to ask whether this is good for people's health. What are the possible  long-term damages? Can it affect safety and lead to more accidents because people get tired? This is not easy to assess. Could such a rota become a selection process where only the healthiest workers would be able to take on such jobs, or people without family commitments?"

There is a widespread use of involuntary part-time work within Norway's health sector, and this she feels needs to be looked at "to a far greater extent than it is today."

"We need unions and employers to help find new ways of organising this work."

Invisible labour is a greater challenge still, she says.

"The Labour Inspection Authority must make sure work environment legislation is being followed, but invisible labour - especially among academics - is hard to measure."

Working hours is a complicated subject, says Finboe Svendsen.

"So many different interests must be taken into account and there is increasing pressure on the working hour regulations.

"Working hours will most likely be central in the new white paper on the work environment which the Labour party is preparing right now," she says.

"Some question whether the working hour regulations have been too inflexible in light of the challenges of modern working life. We feel the regulations are flexible enough," she says and adds:

"We have a politically agreed framework for working hours, but this is decided on the basis of what is safe from a health point of view and the work environment law deals with minimum standards."

When spare time turns into work

With smartphones and portable offices, new social media like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and...

How is it possible to separate work and leisure when everyone is online 'all the time' and a lot of things end up being on the borderline between work and private life?

"The role of the Labour Inspection Authority remains the same, namely to follow up the law as laid out in our work environment legislation," says Ingrid Finboe Svendsen.

"We define borderlines for working hours but we are not a life inspection authority. If someone chooses to spend time in front of their computer rather than their TV it's none of our business. But we know that in order to safeguard a good psychosocial work environment people need more than just time in front of the computer."

The campaign paradox

The Labour Inspection Authority has recently launched their campaign on Facebook. The aim is to be come clearer, to create interest and to make sure a wider audience hears their message: "good colleagues - part of the job".

Is there not a paradox here? Does she not encourage people to do work-related activities at home by using social media like this?

"For us it's about meeting people where they are. On Facebook we can tell 2 million people to be aware of how much they use their computer mouse for instance, and at the same time we become more approachable for anyone who has questions about working hours, contracts or other things. We use Facebook to get the knowledge out there, including what it might mean if people spend too much time in front of their computer."

There's a fire alarm, and we're half-way through the interview.

"Come," she says, "let's go to a café."

We pour out of the door with the other employees while the bell chimes ever louder. We have been enjoying the view of Trondheim from the fifth floor, admiring the mighty Nidaros Cathedral from new angles. We go to a café but are soon back in the office to continue our conversation.

Sweden's Work Environment Authority has made good use of Facebook, she says. In not too long, she believes, most of the 15 people who now answer mail and telephones in her office will be dealing with requests on Facebook. The authority has launched its campaign "good colleagues" which includes the question "when did you last praise your good colleagues? Do it today."

Are you not risking individualising work place protection and reducing it to whether people praise each other?

"Absolutely not," says Ingrid Finboe Svendsen.

That question has already been raised in the office.

"A company's management is still responsible for a safe and good work environment, but if we want to reach as many employees as possible we need to be willing to use new tools to spread our message," she says.

"We aren't good enough at spreading the knowledge which is already there. Much of what we know about work environments is nearly hundred years old knowledge but we still haven't started using it - for instance this fact that we have a great need to be seen and appreciated at work."

Genius technology

To her new media and technology is a godsend. A smartphones and laptops are convenient when you travel some 100 days a year.

"This is genius. I can do my job at an airport for instance."

Ingrid Finboe Svendsen has been in her job for nearly 6 years. She used to work with organisation development. Her first year at the Labour Inspection Authority represented a steep learning curve where she followed the outgoing head of directorate Ivar Leveraas. Then the office moved from Oslo to Trondheim, as part of the then conservative government's drive to decentralise  several official authorities. 

The authority was also slimmed down during this time while it strengthened its regional operations.

"It was a challenging period. The worst thing was all the really committed people who lost their jobs. Still many of them found work in the regions as part of the strengthening of our operations there.

"One of the challenges with the new organisation is to maintain an overview and know everything we are doing, so that we can jump into action when a situation arises."

An analysis and documentation department is working to establish more knowledge on issues like what too much overtime does to us physically and psychologically. 

"We need to make sure that perspective is part of the debate too," she says.

Nordic cooperation

Ingrid Finboe Svendsen meets her Nordic colleagues twice a year. Their common denominator is that their work is based on the Nordic welfare model and the cooperation between authorities, employers and employees. 

"This three-party cooperation sets the Nordic countries apart from the rest of Europe."

What is the focus for the Nordic cooperation right now?

"All of the countries are busy making new strategies for the work environment. We're also keen to assess the effect of what we're doing. We need to document the benefits to society in a way which politicians and the general public understand."

What's the greatest challenge within the European cooperation?

"I feel it is very important that we uphold the work environment standard which we have today, and to strengthen it further. The main trend now is an increased focus on the psychosocial work environment. Social dumping is another important issue which remains on the agenda for the Nordic cooperation," says Ingrid Finboe Svendsen.

"Decent working conditions is a basic right. We've been working systematically with labour immigration since 2004. We witnessed an improvement after a couple of years, but the financial crisis was a setback. It meant more labour immigrants entered less serious businesses. Today we see generally good conditions in larger companies while social dumping is more common with smaller businesses. 

"The public opinion has changed too. One of our surveys showed 90 percent of Norwegians felt social dumping was not OK. It's also no longer socially acceptable to brag about using cheap labour," says the pleased director at the Labour Inspection Authority.

But back to working hours - how much does she work herself? How often is she available outside of office hours?

"Well, the working hour rules don't apply to leaders, but yes - I do work a lot sometimes. But I don't expect my colleagues to do the same. We work to a rule saying we will not work overtime, and we should not be available outside of working hours. But, of course, if something happens I'm here."

More on Norways' Labour Inspection Authority director

Ingrid Finboe Svendsen has a degree in business administration and has been head of directorate at Norway's Labour Inspection Authority since 2005, and assistant head since 2004. 

She came from being local director of organisations at Trondheim municipality.

She has also been director of organisation for Sør Trøndelag County Council, and she was also the County Council head of administration. 

Arbeidstilsynet Facebook The Labour Inspection Authority on Facebook

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