This Europe: Swedes adopt unhealthy attitude to sick days

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The Independent Online

Sweden exudes good health and well-being in summertime. The fresh air is scented with pine forest. Lakes and Baltic Sea beaches are crowded and the chilly water is clean enough to fish and swim in, even near Stockholm. Golfers are on the links at first light (about 5am) and people of all ages cycle and stroll well after dinner under the late-setting sun.

Sweden exudes good health and well-being in summertime. The fresh air is scented with pine forest. Lakes and Baltic Sea beaches are crowded and the chilly water is clean enough to fish and swim in, even near Stockholm. Golfers are on the links at first light (about 5am) and people of all ages cycle and stroll well after dinner under the late-setting sun.

But as Swedes return from vacations at country cottages or charter trips to the Mediterranean, this nation of 8.9 million is grappling with a vexing problem: a record number of workers are on long-term sick leave. The total has doubled in five years and welfare benefits for the sick and disabled now exceed the defence and education budgets combined.

One of every six Swedes of working age is living on government funds because of illness or injury. The cost – about 113bn kronor (£7.8bn) a year, or 16 per cent of this year's national budget – is as staggering as the health and labour situation is hard to explain.

With national elections on 15 September, the issue is a crucial one. The governing centre-left Social Democratic Party, trying to extend an eight-year spell in office, has launched studies and reports saying job conditions, including stress, are getting worse.

Opponents, led by the centre-right Moderate and Christian Democrat parties, say the problem is not workers' health but cushy welfare policies that are eroding the work ethic.

Workers who have taken time off maintain that the pressures and strains of the job are legitimate reasons for going on sick leave. "The wheels are spinning too quickly," said Anna Eriksson, 29, a nurse who took off two months last year, calling herself burnt out. "The working environment simply has become tougher. You have to do twice the work you did before."

Opponents say paid sick leave has come to be seen as an entitlement rather than a benefitand frivolous claims partly caused the rise in sick leave. A survey of 2,000 Swedes found that 60 per cent believed it was acceptable to call in sick for reasons other than illness; for example, family problems or stress. (AP)

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