About the Government Assignment
In the letter of instruction for 2022 the Swedish Agency for Work Environment Expertise was awarded extra financial resources to describe and analyse the consequences of the corona pandemic on the work environment in Sweden. The aim of the project has been to describe both the short-term and longterm consequences that the corona pandemic has had on the work environment in Sweden and which groups have been especially affected during the pandemic.
The results of the studies also includes factors and measures that have improved the work environment which may improve the ability of workplaces to manage sudden and turbulent disruptions to society.
In order to carry out the government assignment, the work has been organised into five different sub-projects with different orientations and with parallel studies where several researchers have worked to answer different questions. Three of the studies have reviewed and analysed the consequences of the pandemic for particularly vulnerable professions: ”The work environment for elementary school teachers during the corona pandemic”, ”The work environment for health care workers during the corona pandemic” and ”The work environment for personnel working at their regular workplaces during the corona pandemic – retail, logistics, health and social care”.
A fourth study, ”The work environment for managers during the corona pandemic”, has described roles and conditions for managers during the pandemic and how leadership and activities connected to the work environment have been affected for managers whose co-workers are either working remotely or at their regular workplace.
The fifth study, ”The organisational and psychosocial work environment in the Swedish labour market during the corona pandemic”, has analysed statistics about work conditions and work environment factors based on the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health (SLOSH) and two additional surveys undertaken during the pandemic.
In addition to the other reports, there is also an international comparison of the pandemic’s consequences for employees, based on reports from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, EU-Osha, and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Eurofound.
When the rate of infection for the corona virus accelerated in Sweden during the spring of 2020, employers were forced to rapidly change and adapt their organisations in order to protect their employees and to follow the restrictions and recommendations issued. Infection prevention measures were introduced, work was reorganised and new duties and routines were introduced in workplaces at the same time as working from home became commonplace. This resulted in comprehensive changes in employee’s work conditions which primarily affected the organisational work environment and the social work environment.
The largest organisational change was the large-scale transition to remote or hybrid working. A long-term consequence of the pandemic is that it has become more common to work remotely, often in combination with working at the regular workplace. However, the employees that where most vulnerable during the pandemic were those who did not have the same possibilities of working from home and were instead required to be at their regular workplace. This particularly applied to employees within female-dominated professions such as health care, social care and education. A significant proportion of these employees experienced an increase in workload and stress when new routines and duties were introduced. This led to a high level of phycological workload that was exacerbated by the emotional demands of the work duties, the high levels of sick leave in the workplace and a worry over being infected, or infecting others, with covid-19.
The studies show that there are organisational and individual measures that can be put in place to reduce the phycological workload. These can consist of support and allocation of resources, adapting staffing and worktimes or individual measures that increase the possibility for recuperation. Working systematically with work environment issues was proved to be effective in reducing the negative effects of the pandemic. The studies show that workplaces that already prior to the pandemic worked actively with work environment issues, were better prepared to cope with the effects of changed work conditions and were able to more quickly identify and manage risks in the work environment. These results are confirmed in the EU-studies that are reviewed in this report and that show that employees at companies and organisations that work preemptively with their work environment were affected to a lesser degree with stress related health issues.
A further protective factor during the pandemic was the comprehensive and rapid transition to remote and hybrid working. Those working remotely were less exposed to the risk of infection or accidents and had a more flexible worklife with a better balance between work and private life. Those working remotely also had a larger influence over their work, less time pressure and a lower phycological workload than those who worked at their regular workplace.
Sweden was one of the countries in Europe where remote working was most widespread during the pandemic and the conditions were especially favourable in the form of digital infrastructure, technical competency and a certain degree of familiarity with working independently. In contrast to many other countries, remote working in Sweden was facilitated by the fact that childcare and schools remained open during the pandemic.
Together, the five completed studies show that workplaces had both a large capacity to adapt and a flexibility, which enabled management of the negative consequences of the pandemic. This is a preparedness that needs to be maintained, but also strengthened, to be able to cope with sudden and turbulent disruptions to society in the future. At the same time, it is important to learn from how the consequences of the pandemic continue to leave their mark on peoples’ work environment and health. An example of this is that the psychosocial work environment, that to a large degree was paused during the pandemic, now needs to be recouped.
This also applies to the workload that continues to be high in several professions even after the pandemic, which risks leading to an exacerbation of the already wide-spread stress related health issues in society.
The Swedish Agency for Work Environment Expertise commissioned scientific journalist Krister Zeidler to write this report. Docent Robert Ljung was the process leader at the Swedish Agency for Work Environment Expertise.