From a workforce of just over four million people, “we have more than 100,000 cases of people who have been on sick-leave for more than a year … This is very expensive,” Bertil Thorslund, a caseworker at Sweden’s Social Insurance agency, told AFP.
In fact, the Swedish government last year paid out a total of 92.4 billion kronor (12.2 billion dollars, 9.9 billion euros) in sick-leave pay and rehabilitation costs.
This may sound like a lot, but the number of people on long-term disability has actually been steadily declining since 2002, when it peaked at about 134,000 people, and with it the amount of state assistance has also slowly begun to come down.
Next year, Sweden expects to save more than two billion kronor on sick pay, and in 2008 the Scandinavian country expects its costs to plunge to a mere 87.6 billion kronor.
“Our goal has been to slash the sick leave in half between 2002 and 2008, and we have managed to get about halfway to our target,” Swedish Employment Minister Hans Karlsson told AFP.
While this slow turn-around is good news, social ministry analyst Petter Odmark insists that a number of other factors give reason for serious concern.
“We have seen a large increase in the number of people going into early retirement in recent years,” he told AFP.
In Sweden, as is the case in other countries, a workers can choose to retire early if he or she has the financial means to do so.
But the term “early retirement” is also used for people who have been on sick-leave for so long that it appears unlikely that they will return to the workforce.
Authorities move them over to the early retirement rolls to save money, since this plan pays out less than disability reimbursements.
Although a jump in early retirement numbers over the past 10 years is hardly surprising considering that the huge post-World War II baby-boom generation began turning 55 in 1995, Odmark said it was worrying that there has been a large increase in the number of younger people leaving the workforce for good.
“Twenty-five percent of early retirees today are under 55. This is a huge problem … When you retire at the age of 55 that’s one thing, but if you retire at 30, it’s going to cost society a lot of money,” Odmark said.
According to a report in Swedish daily Aftonbladet last June, a 35-year-old on early retirement can cost the state five million kronor by the time he or she reaches the official retirement age of 65.
Quoting official numbers, the paper said that 500,000 people are on early retirement in Sweden today, 68,000 of whom are between the ages of 20 and 40. By the time the entire half million early retirees turn 65, Sweden will have dished out a whopping 700 billion kronor in compensation, according to Aftonbladet calculations.
According to Employment Minister Karlsson, the government has launched a number of programs aimed at getting people on both long-term disability and early retirement back into the workforce, including pushing employers to make it easier for these people to come back to work.
“We are very focused on the problem of long-term disability and early retirement,” he said.
Numerous studies however show that this will be an uphill battle. According to a recent report from the National Institute for Working Life, men who have been on sick leave for between 60 and 366 days have five times more problems re-entering the workforce than others, while getting back to work for women with the same absence is 3.5 times more difficult.
While comparing numbers with other countries is complicated due to varying definitions, experts agree that Sweden tops the charts with its early retirement problem.
There are many theories on why the country, with its cradle-to-grave health coverage, is facing such a large sick-leave problem, with many observers insisting that Swedes are in fact no sicker than other Europeans.
“If the sick-leave levels in Sweden really were an indicator of how sick we are, we would be facing a plague here,” Thorslund said.
The problem is that “our social insurance has tended to be viewed as a universal solution to all problems. Getting a divorce? Go on sick-leave. Unhappy with where you’re living? Go on sick-leave. Unemployed? Go on sick-leave,” Thorslund said.
Another problem is that the sick-leaves prescribed by doctors are getting longer.
“There’s something wrong when the time off for a broken ankle more than doubles in just a few years,” Odmark said, insisting that longer sick-leave for small injuries easily leads to long term disability and finally early retirement.
“It only takes a few months on sick-leave before people start identifying themselves with their illness … Long sick-leave aren’t healthy,” Odmark said.