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New regulations improve Swedish workers’ protection against bullying

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

Swedish employers are to become better at preventing people going off sick because of unhealthy workloads or bullying at work. That is what new regulations from the Swedish Work Environment Authority aim to achieve. They contain clearer rules for how employers should work with organisational and social work environment issues.

The Swedish Work Environment Act clearly states that employers are obliged to prevent psychological health problems just like they are obliged to prevent accidents and physical illness. Yet while the Swedish Work Environment Authority provides plenty of detailed rules for how to prevent physical injuries, there has so far not been any similar binding rules covering risks to psychological health. For years, attempts to adopt such rules have failed in the face of opposition from employers’ organisations — until now.    

In October the Swedish Work Environment Authority finally presented regulations for the organisational and social work environment. There is no doubt these are needed. In Sweden different psychological diagnoses make up the second most common cause of long term sick leave, after musculoskeletal disorders. The lack of proper regulations has also made it difficult to use the sanctions which are provided in the Work Environment Act to compel employers to take responsibility for their employees’ psychological wellbeing. 

Managers found guilty of causing suicide

Last year Sweden was rocked by the judgement in the so-called Krokom case, where two senior managers were found guilty by the District Court for having caused a social worker’s depression and resulting suicide. Despite the fact that they knew his mental health was deteriorating because he felt bullied by a manager, they took no active measures within the actual workplace. Instead they initiated dismissal proceedings, which pushed him over the edge. 

However, the Court of Appeal found the senior managers not guilty . Yet even that court said they had been negligent and had failed to do what they ought to have done according to the Work Environment Act. The court specifically highlighted just how badly they had carried out the investigation into whether the social worker had indeed been bullied by his manager. Yet they had not been sufficiently negligent to be convicted, the Court of Appeal ruled. One reason was exactly the lack of clear regulations for how an investigation into alleged bullying should be carried out. As a result it was necessary to tolerate a greater degree of misjudgements and mistakes.    

Substandard investigation harmful

As a response to the appeal court’s ruling, the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s new regulations say a substandard investigation of psychological harassment, i.e. bullying, can be damaging both from a work environment and a health point of view. Therefore anyone carrying out such an investigation must have the necessary skills, be impartial and have the trust of the parties concerned.

The regulations also address workload issues and the organisation of working time. Employers should adapt resources in relation to how much employees have to work and how difficult their tasks are. To avoid unhealthy workloads the employer could for instance reduce the amount of work, alter the priority of different tasks, offer opportunities for recovery, make use of alternative work methods or increase staffing. Allowing a government agency to interfere in staffing and workload like this is one of the things employers’ organisations have found hard to swallow.

The same goes for rules on the organisation of working time. The Working Hours Act does indeed limit the number of hours people are allowed to work, and sets out how much and how often an employee must be allowed to rest, but it does not say anything about how working time should be organised within that framework. Thus, employers have traditionally had great authority in this matter. 

Unhealthy working hours

The new regulations clarify the employers’ obligations to do what is necessary to prevent employees from becoming ill as a result of how working time is organised. The regulations list shift work, night work, split working periods, a lot of overtime and long work shifts as examples of possibly unhealthy working time patterns, but also far-reaching possibilities  to work when and where you want, combined with expectations of being constantly contactable.

Compared to regulations covering physical health risks, the regulations covering the organisational and social work environment are still fairly general in the way they are formulated. But they will provide support for the Swedish Work Environment Authority’s inspectors, and they could also increase employers’ awareness of the fact that they must carry out systematic work environment assessments also when it comes to psychosocial health risks.


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