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Working life’s hidden power

Working life’s hidden power

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, Photo:

It is difficult for people with disabilities in Sweden to find jobs, and unemployment is considerably higher among people in this group compared to the rest of the labour force. Faced with a shrinking workforce, there’s a need to get as many as possible into work. The fight to secure the right to work for people with disabilities has become a way to work for social sustainability.

If someone had told Lars Andersson from Piteå six years ago that he would be speaking in front of 400 people at a conference in Halmstad, that he would give a lecture in Brussels and that he would be meeting two labour market ministers, he probably would not have believed it.

Six years ago he was 32 and had never been in work apart from a few brief internships. Diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD he found it hard to get work. But at the same time changes were taking place in his surroundings which would also affect him.

The hamburger chain Max had started thinking in new ways about who they would hire as hosts. These are the people who work out front in the actual restaurants and who make sure tables are cleaned and that the restaurants look nice. Max saw that for many people this was a very temporary job and they had trouble recruiting new workers. They started looking for people who fit the job and got in touch with Samhall - a state-owned company assigned to provide meaningful work for people with disabilities. Now they employ 150 people with various degrees of psychological disabilities.

“Having a disability doesn’t disqualify you from all kinds of jobs. We choose to look at their ability to work and believe in what they can do,” says Pär Larshans, director of sustainability at Max hamburger restaurants.

Best newcomer

Lars Andersson was one of those who started work as a serving host at Max with help from Samhall, and it was the start of an adventure which has taken him to auditoriums both in Sweden and abroad. Lars Andersson has also been questioning politicians during the annual Almedalen week, a forum for politicians and others held in Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland, on what they do to help people with disabilities find work. He was recently crowned by magazine Shortcut the 23rd most important newcomer among Swedish entrepreneurs, business leaders and politicians. Lars Andersson is happy with this.

“It’s an opportunity which has given me a new life and I now hope that more people with disabilities get the same chance as me,” says Lars Andersson.

When Lars Andersson opens his heart and talks about what the job means to him when it comes to feeling worthy, being able to contribute and what it means to be seen for what you can do, something happens to his audience says Pär Larshans.

Anyone could be hit

We meet on 30 November at the Rival cinema in central Stockholm. The ‘Show the Way’ seminar starts in less than an hour, organised by Samhall. One employer and one ‘trailblazer’ (someone who has shown outstanding commitment) among six nominees will be awarded for their work or for their efforts to help get people with disabilities into the labour market. 600 guests are rushing in and there’s a premiere-like mood. Judging from the list of speakers there is real commitment to give more people with disabilities the chance to enter working life. A string of well-known Swedes are about to enter the stage, among them last year’s trailblazer Carin Götblad who is Stockholm’s County Police Commissioner, business leader Carl Bennet and president and CEO of the ICA group Kenneth Bengtsson.

This year Henrik Lindstedt at Panduro Hobby in Malmö was named trailblazer of the year and Sweprod AB became employer of the year.

One of the speakers is Minister of Labour Hillevi Engström, who reminds people that anyone could be hit by illness or an accident resulting in a disability. She therefore encouraged all businesses and public representatives to take part and help. It is not enough that only five percent of people leave Samhall to find other jobs.

“This is about assessment, attitudes and leaders who have made their minds up. We need to make the important things happen. If I want to achieve anything during my spell as minister of labour it is to make social sustainability as natural as climate and environmental sustainability,” said Hillevi Engström.

 ”See the power”

So far state authorities and the public sector have not been particularly good at hiring people with disabilities. There is a certain reluctance according to new research carried out by weekly business journal Veckans affärer and the Swedish Organisation for Managers. Out of all the seven areas of discrimination which exists today, 1,200 employers said disabilities was the hardest one to handle. But now the government wants to stimulate more to take the right step.

Minister of Labour Hillevi Engström announced that the government will increase its budget allocation, making it possible to receive 100,000 kronor (€11,000) per workplace and per worker to help with the necessary adjustments. The government has also asked the employment service to help make employers interested in taking on more people with disabilities. As a result the employment service has been running the campaign ‘See the Power’ since September. 

Pär Larshans is part of the jury that chooses the winners of the ‘Show the Way’ award. Max had been working actively to hire people with disabilities and won the prize themselves two yeas ago. Max, Sweden’s oldest hamburger chain, employed 3,000 people in 2010, ran 79 restaurants and had a turnover of 1,250m kronor (€138m). The business is wholly family-owned and sons Rickard and Cristoffer Bergfors are president and vice president. They work with both environmental and social sustainability and the drive to get serving hosts jobs for people with disabilities is part of this work. They told the seminar that they’d entered an agreement with Samhall to take on a further 300 people with disabilities.

“For us this is a way of recruiting for positions which we could not fill, but it has been necessary to address our own prejudices. Prejudices represent the largest obstacle. At the same time it is important to point out this is not done out of charity but it is a strategic, long-term drive to be able to face the future competition over labour,” says Pär Larshans.

Leading by example

Max leads by example and takes one step at the time. No boss is required to hire people with disabilities, but the hope is that all of them will be motivated by looking at the good examples. There has also been help from Samhall and there is work being done on leadership training courses to change attitudes and educate people.

If you are to work with psychological disabilities like Aspergers or ADHD you need clear routines and instructions. Restaurant heads have also had access to Samhall personnel. The positive experiences have led to the extra 300 people which will now be employed by Max. There are several reasons for why this has worked so well, thinks Pär Larshans. One is the systematic and long-term training of leaders. Another is the support from the company owners. 

“Without the owners’ will and praise this would not have worked,” he says.

When the family business leaders Rickard and Cristoffer Bergfors enter the stage at the ‘Show the Way’ seminar they also talk about the commercial advantages of thinking social sustainability by hiring people with disabilities.

“The atmosphere has improved and the running of the business works better. We have also received a lot of attention, which is good for our brand. Being both environmentally and socially responsible is a natural part of running a modern business,” both brothers say.


Samhall is owned by the Swedish state and since the early 1980s it has been responsible for providing meaningful work for people with disabilities. 20,000 people work at Samhall at businesses in 250 localities in Sweden. Samhall is one of Sweden’s largest companies and is a service provider within many highly competitive sectors like cleaning, logistics, property and more. Samhall also matches people with disabilities to jobs. Some 1,000 of Samhall’s 20,000 employees are hired by other companies every year.

Every year Samhall gives a company and a trailblazer a Corporate Social Responsibility award (a ‘Show the Way’ award).

Source: Samhall. 


Disabilities and labour market

In Sweden 16 percent of people of employable age (i.e. between 16 and 65) say they have some kind of disability. That is 921,000 people. Out of those just over half a million people have a reduced working ability.

Unemployment among people with reduced work ability is double that of the rest of the labour force. While three in four of people with no disability are in work, only half of people with disabilities have a job. It is also more common for people with disabilities to work part time. People with disabilities also have a lower education than average. 

Since September the Swedish Employment Service brought in new measures for people with physical disabilities. The campaign, called ‘See the Power’, will highlight for employers the ways in which people with physical disabilities can be a resource and it also provides information on what support the employment service offers.



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