Swedish multinationals pamper employees to keep them fit

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High-tech gyms, free breakfasts, and programmes to help people lose weight or stop smoking: modern Swedish companies pamper their employees in a bid to combat one of Europe's highest absenteeism rates, writes AFP's Delphine Touitou.


Swedish companies are faced with a paradox. Their employees claim to be happy in their jobs yet they don't hesitate to call in sick often, backed up by strong collective labour agreements that protect employees' rights.

As a result Sweden's large multinational corporations like Scania, Ericsson and Volvo and hip sectors such as consultancies and IT companies do whatever they can to attract employees and keep them happy in the workplace.

Some companies bring a masseur to the office to help staff get rid of back and shoulder pain, while others offer gym memberships or free breakfasts and fruit baskets in the office.

"And nobody would imagine that the fruit basket would ever be withdrawn, even though there are always people who complain that the fruit is not fresh enough or not organic," says Olga Cara, an employee at the state-run certification agency Swedac.

"It's very common in Sweden to care about the employees," adds Lars Jilmstad, a spokesman for the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

"When you're happier, when you're more satisfied with your working conditions, then you perform at work," says Magnus Verke, a psychology professor at Stockholm University.

But employers aren't just being nice. A a driving factor is that healthy and happy employees take fewer sick days and are therefore more productive.

Equally important is a government incentive that offers employers generous tax breaks for efforts to keep employees healthy in a bid to reduce the burden on the health care sector.

The tax break applies for example to gym memberships, yoga classes and weight loss or quitting smoking programmes.

In Sweden, which has a workforce of around 4.34 million, including 65 percent in the private sector, the number of people absent due to sickness remains the highest in the European Union, at 2.9 percent compared to an average of 1.6 percent -- outdone only by non-EU member Norway at 3.4 percent.

Scania, the world's leading heavy truck manufacturer based in Sweden, has

studied the problem closely.

"Today our absenteeism rate is below five percent, which is very low for an engineering industry company where the rate is normally about 10 to 20 percent," says Scania spokesman Hans-Åke Danielsson.

"For a company of our size, every percent you can reduce the absence due to sickness represents a cost saving of about 75 million kronor ($12.5 million)," he said.

Employees' well-being is therefore a real issue, and while the investment may be costly it pays off in the long term, Danielsson says.

At Scania's headquarters in Södertälje, some 30 kilometres south of Stockholm, the 9,000 employees can keep trim for free at the company's Health Care Centre, a vast sporting and recreation centre with 4,400 square metres of gyms, pools and workout rooms.

Families of Scania employees even have access to the facilities for just 300 kronor ($50) a year.

"During economic booms, unemployment has been low and sickness absence has been high," Sisko Bergendorff, a spokesman for the Swedish Social Insurance Agency says, noting that Sweden employs a relatively high number of workers older than 55, who in turn take more sick leave.

He said sickness insurance was particularly generous and available for long periods in Sweden, though the current centre-right government has tightened legislation to curb abuses of the system.

Employers pay sickness benefits for the first 14 days, after which the social insurance system takes over. Benefits amount to 80 percent of an employee's salary with the monthly allowance capped at around 19,200 kronor ($3,215).

Verke suggests that Scandinavians in general are less hesitant than others to ask a doctor to put them on sick leave when it comes to illnesses like depression or burnout.

"In Sweden it's more accepted to say 'I'm suffering from fatigue' or some kind of mental illness or stress so I'll take some days off," he says.

Finally, he said that Sweden's long tradition of cooperation and consensus between employers and labour unions was part of the reason for the "comparatively good working conditions" and explains why employees are "quite happy at work."

AFP's Delphine Touitou


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