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Sunday, July 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:31 A.M.
In Norway, a nation calls in sick: Oil money affecting work ethic
By Lizette Alvarez
OSLO, Norway Before the oil boom, when Norway was mostly poor and largely isolated, the country survived on its hard work and self-reliance, two stalwart Scandinavian virtues.
Now, with the country still bulging from three decades of oil money, Norway is discovering that sudden wealth does not come without complications: The country's bedrock work ethic is caving in.
Like the overindulged children of newly minted millionaires, Norwegians now stay home from work at a rate that is the highest in Europe.
On an average day, about 25 percent of Norway's workers are absent from work, either because they have called in sick, are undergoing physical rehabilitation or are on long-term disability. The rate is especially high among government employees, who account for half the work force.
In the United States, in the first quarter of this year, the figures were 6.9 percent for public employees and 6.6 for private-sector workers, reported CBS' Webmagazine.
The average amount of time people were absent from work in Norway in 2002, not including vacations, was 4.8 weeks. Sweden, its closest competitor, totaled 4.2 weeks, while Italy came in at 1.8 weeks and Portugal at 1.5 weeks, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Almost half the year off
Throw in vacation time (five weeks for most people), national paid holidays (11 per year) and weekends, and Norwegians take off nearly half the calendar year, about 170 days, a figure that does not include time off for disability and rehabilitation, according to Bergens Tidende, the newspaper that made the calculations.
In addition, long-term disability leave, up 20 percent since 1990, is growing at an even faster rate than sick leave.
The most common complaints other than colds and flu are skeletal and muscle problems, including repetitive stress injuries.
Paradoxically, when they are at work, Norwegians are highly productive; the country's economy was ranked by the World Economic Forum as the ninth most competitive in 2003, ahead of Japan, Britain and Canada.
But getting them to work consistently is proving difficult.
The government, which paid $12.3 billion in absence-related benefits in 2003, has set up a voluntary three-way agreement with employers and unions to decrease the rate in 2001, but it was widely ignored and the problem grew worse.
Now the government is dusting off the agreement and requiring employers and employees to follow some of its dictates. A doctor's approval is now necessary for any absence beyond eight weeks, and sick employees must meet with employers to talk about their ailments and see if anything more can be done, or risk losing their benefits. Bosses must try to draw workers back by offering them flexible hours or finding them other duties; someone with a back problem must be allowed to sit at a desk rather than lug boxes.
Just about everyone agrees that Norway's liberal welfare system plays a substantial role in the growing absenteeism, but labor unions contend that Norwegians also face increasingly difficult working conditions. International companies, some of them American, have bought or merged with Norwegian businesses in the last decade, which has exposed workers to job insecurity for the first time.
The unions contend that has made workers reluctant to take sick leave when they should. Instead, they stay on the job and hurt themselves more seriously, which forces them into long-term disability.
"There has been a brutalization of the work force," said Finn Erik Thoresen, vice president for the Confederation of Trade Unions. "Most of the people away from work at the moment are people on disability leave. That is a result of the working life. People are working and working until they are on the edge."
Finn Bergesen Jr., director general of the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry, Norway's largest business-trade organization, scoffs at what the unions call the "brutalized" work force.
"We've never had fewer work hours, longer vacations, a better welfare system everything is better than before," he said. "We have become a nation of whiners."
In Bergesen's view, overly generous benefits are chiefly to blame for the absentee rates. He does not accuse workers of fraud. Instead, he asserts that the government makes it too easy for people stay home for minor ailments.
Other Scandinavian countries are making cuts in their welfare programs, but Norway faces no such pressure because of its oil money. Its $32 billion in oil export revenues in 2003, was a 14 percent increase over 2002, and another bonanza is taking shape this year, with world prices hitting $42 a barrel.
"We are blessed and cursed with oil," Bergesen said. "These welfare systems have changed attitudes. Gradually, you lean more and more on the government rather than on yourself. You must have a welfare system that provides incentives."
Dynea, a Norwegian company and one of the world's largest manufacturers of adhesive systems, has cut the sick-leave rate from 8 percent to 3.3 percent over the past two years. Dynea managers meet with employees who are out more than 16 days and help them to get better treatment. Managers also move sick employees into less physically demanding jobs, if need be, and buy them special equipment. The company has a gym, a sick bay and visiting nurses, physiotherapists and doctors.
Sven-Roger Fageraas, a foreman at Dynea who works part time because of a permanent physical condition, said the company took pains to accommodate him, buying him a special chair lift, rather than shooing him away. Other workers take note of that kind of thing, he said, and it breeds loyalty.
"The best system is one where you have a good relationship," he said. "If your relationship with your company is very good, you go to work, even if you are a little bit sick."
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