Discovering the way to sustainable workplaces

10 November 2022

The research group will study workplaces, for example within healthcare, logistics and transport.

All companies and organisations work towards healthy working environments and employees, but what determines whether a workplace succeeds? In Sweden, 432,000 people are unemployed and almost 15% of the population is on sick leave. A new research programme seeks to create a different approach to working environment issues for a sustainable working life.

A new six-year research programme funded by Forte is underway at Uppsala University. It involves a sustainable working life and the need to balance work’s demands with the abilities of the individual. Working environment is systematic work over the long term to create conditions for people to develop and feel good at work.

“After mapping, implementing and evaluating the results of the research programme, we will spread the word about what the best workplaces have done well to keep their workers healthy. Working-environment surveys are often carried out and problems are found to be solved. But working environment is a work in progress. New changes are always occurring and there must be a capacity and routines in the workplace to handle new challenges,” says Magnus Svartengren, chief physician and professor of occupational and environmental medicine.

Sustainable workplace - an investment

In a sustainable workplace, planned production and activities are carried out with the highest quality. Yet this is simultaneously combined with good long-term health and the ability to stay in the workplace for a one’s entire working life.

“We believe that there is great potential today for sustainable workplaces that increase productivity, efficiency and quality without directly increasing costs and while maintaining health. It's not a cost, it's an investment," says Magnus Svartengren.

Care with a focus on the workplace

Occupational and Environmental Medicine, led by Uppsala University Hospital and Uppsala University, has a specialist clinic for health issues related to the working environment. The patient clinic receives individual patients, but its activities focus on providing information and advice to employers and entire groups of businesses and organisations.

"Unlike other parts of healthcare, we focus on the whole workplace. A patient who feels unwell in the workplace is more a sign that something is wrong in the working environment," says Magnus Svartengren.

What should we do today to ensure that our employees will be the staff we want in five years' time? There are many exciting aspects to follow up in the new research programme.

Occupational and Environmental Medicine is a medical speciality but the research group is interdisciplinary. In addition to doctors, the team includes toxicologists, behavioural scientists, engineers, psychologists, ergonomists and physiotherapists.

“For most people, the working environment is a healthy factor that helps to keep you healthy, but sometimes there are factors that affect you negatively and can make you ill, causing such things as cancer, mental illness or physical strain,” continues Magnus Svartengren.

“We want to help ensure that working environment management is carried out in a sustainable way to reduce sick leave. Employees must be healthy in the long term while the workplace maintains productivity.”

Previous health research

The previous research project "Health and the Future" showed several success factors in healthy businesses. For example, effective two-way communication at all levels, better understanding of support structures such as occupational health, good understanding of employee well-being and the concept of organisational justice.

“These factors are still important, but working life has changed since our previous survey 20 years ago. New challenges have arisen, such as digitalisation and the large increase in the number of immigrants, who now make up a fifth of the workforce. This group is a resource that we do not manage optimally," says Magnus Svartengren.

“We also need to make some jobs more attractive. Instead of training more people in, for example, healthcare, we need to be able to retain the employees we have. What should we do today to ensure that our employees will be the staff we want in five years' time? There are many exciting aspects to follow up in the new research programme.”

The importance of organisational justice

The concept of organisational justice includes how management makes decisions and how everyone in the workplace socially interacts.

“Organisational justice, we believe, will continue to prove important in the workplace. Clarity and fairness on the part of managers is important, and everyone should receive the same information. Employees should be rewarded for what they do and not who they are. At the same time, all employees have a responsibility to be involved and friendly towards each other. It may sound so embarrassingly simple, but we have a lot of research showing that organisational justice is not actually used in most workplaces," concludes Magnus Svartengren.

Magnus Svartengren, chief physician and professor of occupational and environmental medicine.
Photo: Daniel Olsson

Magnus Svartengren gives advice based on organisational justice:

  • Managers should be professional and discuss how employees contribute to objectives, and if something didn't work - talk about why: Are the objectives unclear? Is better training needed? Is the person in the wrong place?
  • Treat everyone equally and focus on what employees do, not what they are like. 
  • Opportunities for on-the-job training are important.
  • Feeling comfortable, being seen and kindness are incredibly important. This is not only the manager's responsibility, but employees’ too.

The balanced working life of the future

Research programme: "Balanced and sustainable working life of the future - Models and methods to develop and support lifelong sustainable health" led by the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Uppsala University Hospital/Uppsala University.

Funded by the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (FORTE) with SEK 18 million. Active for 6 years, from 2021.