The Swedish Agency for Public Management
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Agencies’ work to prevent and reduce sickness absence (2017:14)

On behalf of the Government, the Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) conducted an in-depth analysis of the agencies’ work to prevent and reduce sickness absence among their employees. The objective was to investigate how the agencies work and to identify factors of significance to successful efforts of this kind.

Statskontoret’s collective assessment is that the agencies in several respects work along the lines of research regarding health factors for preventing and reducing sickness absence among their employees. The agencies state, for example, that the line managers apply a present leadership and manage workloads and stress among their employees. However, Statskontoret believes that the agencies may need to improve these approaches since many say at the same time that they lack systems for identifying illness and managing workloads and stress among the employees. We also assess that the agencies should take a broader holistic approach to sickness absence among women employees.

Factors for successful work to prevent and reduce sickness absence

Statskontoret has identified a number of factors that are of significance to successful work in preventing and reducing sickness absence among state agencies:

  • The line managers conduct a present leadership by being physically and socially present at the workplace and by holding regular, unpretentious dialogues with the employees regarding the work situation and health
  • The manager allocates resources and duties based on the employees’ circumstances
  • The employees are given influence over their own work
  • The employees participate in operational development and improvement work
  • Clear assignments and objectives for the operations
  • Application of individual solutions to counteract and shorten sickness absences
  • Early and regular contact with employees reported sick
  • The HR functions work to keep the work environment issue alive in the organisation 
  • The agency management signals that the work of preventing and reducing sickness absence is a high priority
  • Clear orders towards occupational health services

In-depth analysis of the agencies’ work

The agencies’ conduct a present leadership, but many lack systems for discovering illness

A present leadership means that the managers are accessible to their employees and that they have good knowledge of the employees’ health and conditions for managing the work. This way, the managers can discover early signs of illness and take steps at an early stage to avoid impending sickness absence. Of the responding HR functions in our survey, 90 per cent say that the line managers at their agency conduct present leadership to a large or somewhat large extent. At the same time, many agencies lack systems and work methods for discovering early signs of illness.

The line managers manage workload and stress, but systems are often lacking for handling the problem

A majority of the HR functions say that the line managers work on managing high workload and stress. However, 50 per cent of the agencies lack systems or work methods for handling the problem. A high workload and stress are, according to our survey, a problem at a full 96 per cent of the agencies that responded to our survey. Only just over half of the employees in the state also perceive that the manager supports them in finding a balance between work and private life.

Many agencies have taken steps to increase the employees’ influence over their own work

Our survey shows that nearly half of the agencies have taken steps to increase the employees’ room to manoeuvre in and control over their own work in recent years. Only 20 per cent of the agencies say that they have not had a need to take such steps. This indicates that there has been a great need to increase the employees’ influence over their own work at many agencies.

Limited possibilities of work adaptation

Our survey shows that the employees’ possibility of switching or getting adapted duties is limited at a full 45 per cent of the agencies. This makes it harder for the agencies to apply individual solutions, both when an employee is so be rehabilitated back to work and at early signs of illness to avoid sickness absence since the solutions usually involve some form of adaptation of the duties and working hours.

However, according to the HR functions in our survey, most of the agencies take early and regular contact with employees reported sick, which is important for shortening their time away on sick leave.

The agencies work to reduce sickness absence among women to a varying degree

Sickness absence in the state is higher among women than among men. This can among other things be due to women generally having a worse work environment than men, which justifies steps being taken to improve the work environment where there are more women.

Our survey also shows, however, that many agencies do not analyse the work environment from a gender perspective or take steps to reduce sickness absence among women to any greater extent. This indicates that many agencies can do more to reduce sickness absence among women.

Differences between how various agencies work

The survey does not generally show any major differences between female-dominated and other agencies. The survey also does not indicate any major differences in terms of how the agencies at various levels of sickness absence work to reduce it.

However, we have identified that agencies that conduct education and research work less actively with the issue compared with agencies in other areas of operation. We have also identified differences between agencies of different sizes. For example, line managers at large agencies conduct a present leadership to a lesser extent and work less to handle high workload and stress among the employees compared with line managers at smaller agencies.

Impact of good examples

In Statskontoret’s earlier analysis of the agencies’ work to prevent and reduce sickness absence, we highlighted a number of good examples of how the agencies work in the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, Försäkringskassan and the Public Employment Service. In this analysis, we followed up the impact of these examples.

We can confirm that the Swedish Prison and Probation Service is the agency that has made the most progress in the implementation. According to evaluations, the approach has contributed to reducing short-term sickness absence and there are indications that it has improved the psychosocial working environment in the agency.

The Public Employment Service and Försäkringskassan have not come as far in the implementation. It is therefore harder to make a statement about what potential effects their respective work has had on the employees’ work environment and health.