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The truth about leaves of absence in Sweden

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The truth about leaves of absence in Sweden
Maybe you want to ask your Swedish employer for time off to climb Mount Everest. File photo: AP
17:01 CET+01:00
Sweden is famous for its generous maternity leave, but how about getting leave if you're not a parent - and what are you eligible for? The Local takes a closer look at the ins and outs of leaves of absence and what Swedish law actually says.

A leave of absence, tjänstledighet in Swedish, is a period of time during which one does not work (and generally does not get paid), but retains employee status and job security. After the leave, an employee is guaranteed the same position, or at least a very similar one.

“What this means it that you have a right to keep your employment during (and after) the leave," Helena Larsson, lawyer at white-collar union group Saco, tells The Local. "The purpose varies, but usually it gives incentives to the employee to try new things or to facilitate difficult personal situations."

It’s a fairly well-known fact that Sweden has one of the most liberal parental leave policies in Europe. But what about other types of leave? What if you want to go back to school, but are worried about losing your position? What if you get sick? What if a family member gets sick? What if you want to start your own business?

“The right to leave is a very complex question, one that is regulated in several different acts," Larsson says. "There is no general right to a leave of absence, but the right exists in certain circumstances."

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In fact, there are provisions governing leave of absence in some 20 different statutes in Swedish law. Navigating all the rules is no simple task. The Local confirmed a handful of circumstances in which employees have a legal right to extended time off from work

Education

According to the Employee’s Right to Educational Leave Act (Studieledighetslagen) of 1974, any person who has been employed at a certain company for at least six months or a total of at least twelve months during the past two years has a legal right to take a leave of absence for studies. Generally a leave of up to six months can be taken, and the leave is unpaid.

However, foreign-born employees are also entitled to a leave of absence for Swedish for immigrants courses language classes (Svenska för invandrare, SFI), which in certain cases may be a paid leave.

Starting a company

Sweden, the land of easy startups, does what it can to encourage small business owners. Since the Right to Leave to Conduct a Business Operation Act of 1998, employees have had the right to take a leave of absence of up to six months to start their own company. However, a stipulation is that the company you start cannot be a competitor of your current employer. You can only take this type of leave once per employer, and once again you must have been an employee for at least six months before taking the leave. You also must apply for leave at least three months in advance.

Parental Leave

In the most common and most understood type of leave, parents in Sweden are granted a combined 16 months of leave for each child, with 80 percent of pay during the period. Read The Local’s explanations of how parental leave works here and here.

Political and union activities

“Frequently if one is involved in local politics or is part of a union board, you have to do something there maybe once a week,” Bo Hallberg, an expert at Unionen, tells The Local. “And then you still need to work the other days.”

Union work is one of the most important types of leave, and paragraph three of the statute (The Trade Union Representatives Act) states that "an employer may not hinder a union trustee from completing his or her assignments".

Care of Close Relatives or Pressing Family Reasons

The laws on compensation and leave for the care of close relatives (Lag om ledighet för närståendevård, lag om rätt till ledighet av trängande familjeskäl) stipulates that employees shall have the right to leave when a person close to them is seriously ill. The same applies to serious accidents or deaths. This right cannot be contracted away and takes precedence even over a collective wage agreements (kollektivavtal), but in some instances may be limited to just a few full days a year.

”If you have an old, sick mother lying in the hospital, of course you have the right to be with her and take care of her,” Hallberg explains. “If you choose to do that, you don’t receive pay, but you don’t have to quit your job either, even if you need to go visit her every other day, for example.”

Trying a new job

Rumours have circulated of Swedes being able to take time off from one job to try out another one, and then being able to return to the old job if the new one doesn't work out. But don’t get too excited – generally this right only exists within the state sector.

“It’s no general law,” Hallberg informs The Local. “The government and state sector has this right but it doesn’t really exist in the private sector.”

”I didn’t make the law, so I don’t really know,” Hallberg adds with a laugh. “But I suppose the purpose is to give people the chance to find a better job. I might take another job and it might be terrible. I might not like it at all. And if I have a leave of absence for that period then I can then return to my (state sector) job. But in the private sector I’ve already quit and lost that position.”

Hallberg said that a few collective contract agreements in other sectors may give employees this right, but it’s rare. Generally, if a non-state employee wants to try out another job but retain the option of returning to the old job, they simply must hope the employer will go along with it.

“In that case it all depends on the employer’s good will,” Hallberg said. “Which is understandable, as it can be quite problematic. Obviously most employers are not happy to do that.”

Climbing Mount Everest

Finally, maybe you want to go soul-searching in India. Maybe you just want a three-month vacation. In that case, may the force be with you – but don’t count on it.

Magnanimous employers may allow their employees a leave of absence for a whole slew of reasons, such as achieving that lifelong dream of climbing Mount Everest (or Sweden’s highest peak, Kebnekaise). But generally, Swedes don’t have much more of a right to leave than anyone else, Hallberg said.

“There's this myth that we take so much time off in Sweden,”Hallberg said. “But we don't, really. And it’s not like you get paid for it. You get leave for the most important things. I mean it’s obvious you should get time off for a newborn child. But things aren’t really so different here.”

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Solveig Rundquist

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