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Healthy organisations don’t emerge by accident

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

New Swedish research shows more than one in four young people believe their jobs will have a negative impact on their health. At the same time we are becoming increasingly interested in what makes us healthy at work.

“It is easy to create a negative image when you read the papers, but you should also remember that negative studies are more interesting to the media than positive ones. Positive Health stories are not very visible, but I wish they were,” says Eva Vingård, Professor Emeritus of occupational and environmental medicine at the Uppsala University.

Several studies published this summer and autumn point to an increase in sick leave and negative developments particularly within the psychosocial work environment. 

The work health barometre 2014, an annual survey by Sveriges Företagshälsor (a members association representing corporate healthcare providers), shows 29 percent of women under 30 and 27 percent of men of the same age believe their jobs will have a negative influence on their health in the next two years.  

The work health barometre, which has just over 9,000 respondents between 20 and 65, also shows that younger people are more often off sick than older colleagues, and that a considerable number of younger people do not feel motivated by work. 46 percent of women under 30 even said going to work sometimes made them feel psychologically ill. Sveriges Företagshälsor’s expert panel confirms that psychosocial factors, especially stress, today make up the most serious work environment problem.

The work environment has no gender

Another survey recently carried out by the Swedish Work Environment Authority shows that employers are ill prepared for this development. The authority visited 1,705 workplaces across the country to see how they work with stress, and found that six in ten workplaces have no plans in place for working with stress and psychological ill health. The negative reports have resulted in a growing focus particularly on young women’s health. But Eva Vingård, who has made a career out of studying work environments, reckons things might not be as bad as they seem. Stress and pressure are not new issues, they have always been around. She is sceptical of turning work environment problems into a gender issue, however.

“It’s not wrong to look at this, but I disagree with the focus on women’s ill health. Bad workplaces have nothing to do with gender, and I think the focus should rather be on creating good health in the public sector as a whole. If not we risk turning women into a group of victims. I have been working with male-dominated work environments like abattoirs and the construction industry, but nobody ever suggested we should look after men’s work environment,” she says. 

Thirteen health factors

Eva Vingård began her work environment research in what she calls “the misery trade”. At that time the work environment was about avoiding risks and dangers. Since 2008 she has studied what sets a healthy company or workplace apart from unhealthy ones — both within the public and private sectors. She found thirteen factors which create a healthy workplace — positive, approachable leaders, well-developed communication, cooperation and team work, positive and social climate, influence and participation, autonomy and empowerment, clear roles and expectations and goals, recognition, the opportunity to develop and grow in your work, a suitable tempo and work load, administrative and/or personal support at work, a good physical environment and a good relationship with the interested parties, i.e. patients or customers.

“No single issue is really more important than any other, but you need structure in order to work like this. It is not enough to have one person burning for this, it needs to permeate the company or organisation. You also need to have the opportunity to work to promote health. Top leadership is of course also important. A good structure doesn’t happen by itself and a healthy organisation doesn’t emerge by accident,” she says.  

Now there is a growing interest in health promoting work, i.e. preventive work environment measures.

“Several factors separate a workplace with a good work environment from another. More than anything it is about having a healthy structure which has room for good leadership, justice and good communication,” says Eva Vingård.

Leadership important for the work environment

Research shows it is easier to create a good structure in private companies than in the public sector. Private companies often have clear missions and a clearer leadership. The public sector is more complex, not least when it comes to leadership. Public companies are bound by political leadership, official leadership and by their mission. So how do public companies which work well do it, like in the example from Karlstad?

“Well, we are asking the same question, but we see that health-promoting work is rooted in strong, humanist and people-loving leadership,” says Eva Vingård.

She believes the increased interest in preventative work environment measures is due to today’s work environment, which is different from when it was mainly about reducing noise, solvent use or other physical dangers in the work environment. Today psychosocial dangers represent the largest work environment problem.  

“A bad boss cannot be eliminated, even if you feel like it sometimes. Psychosocial issues are harder to solve after the event, but easier to prevent,” says Eva Vingård.

She does think it can be harder to work for a good work environment with today’s many temporary jobs, but there could be solutions we have yet to discover. 

“You can’t stop structural changes like globalisation, flexible jobs and the 24 hour society, but we can identify the deviations and the knowledge about what is wrong. My worry when it comes to work environment measures is that we are stuck in yesterday’s world, dominated by big corporations and manufacturing towns, and we fail to see the dynamics which today’s changes bring. We need to be at the forefront, see where work environment issues are headed and think “what do we need to know today in order not to be damaged tomorrow?”," says Eva Vingård. 


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