Confronting Disparities For The Sake Of Health

Sick time linked to workplace inequalities
By Lars Einar Engström*:

Often when we are speaking about or discussing gender and equal opportunities we are unconsciously talking about women and men who are middle-age or younger, white, and middle-class with some kind of higher education. My own unconscious framing of this issue was recently challenged by a Swedish government report on women’s experience of workplace environments.

Around the globe women have a disproportionately high absence rate because of sickness and ill health.

Why is that? Why is this disparity happening along the lines of gender?

I wondered if the answer might be that women have more repetitive tasks, heavier manual handling, and mentally more demanding work with people. I wondered if men might have more varied tasks and machines, tools, trucks and more freedom to walk around and socialize.

Well, I don’t have to wonder anymore.

In spring 2011 the Swedish government tasked the Swedish Work Environment Authority (WEA) with developing and carrying out special efforts with the aim of preventing women from being knocked out of working life due to work environment related problems. The first step of the project was to gather information about women’s experience in the workplace by educating inspectors and carrying out a national workplace inspection program. (You can see the results of this inspection program in this report, and many of their conclusions are likely applicable geography aside.)

WEA inspected approximately 4,100 workplaces and began dialogues with over 2600 employers about how a gender perspective on work environment management can give them a more comprehensive picture of the risks and dangers employees face.
From their research, WEA concluded that there were a number of work environment characteristics that explained why women are affected by work related illnesses at higher rates than men:
  • The gender pattern prevailing in society today, that is to say that man is the norm, is found also in working life. That women’s work is valued lower has the result that their work environment risks are not sufficiently revealed and therefore often go unaddressed.
  • Tools, protective equipment, and workstations are often not designed for women.
  • Women and men in the same profession often work with different tasks and their physical loads are therefore different. Women work to a higher degree with monotonous and repetitive working tasks.
  • Women’s work often entails more meetings and contacts with people, which results in more psychosocial strain.
In addition to the above,  let’s not forget that many women continue to work when they come home because childcare and other work around the home is still largely seen as women’s work. Women are also most often the ones expected to stay home when children are sick or out of school.
We are so accustomed to the workplace equality conversation revolving around the leadership and management levels of companies that the inequalities shown in a report like this aren’t given the attention they deserve.
*I want to extend a special thanks to Svend Erik Mathiassen (professor from University of Gävle, Sweden), and Christina Jonsson, Kersti Lorén and Minke Wersäll from the Swedish Work Environment Authority for inspiring me to think about this in new ways at the 19th Triennial Congress of The International Ergonomics Association.
Lars is a trained psychologist and a senior partner with the Swedish consultant company Edcolby AB ( He has written four books, two of which have been translated into English,Confessions of a Sexist (2008) and Your Career in Your Hands (2011). Lars writes an online column for the Swedish business school IHM (
Posted by MARC Catalyst on Aug 20, 2015 11:19 AM America/New_York

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