Activating the Sick-Listed : Policy and Practice of Return to Work in Swedish Sickness Insurance and Working Life

Sammanfattning: A critical task of social policy in most Western welfare states during recent decades has consisted of reducing the economic burden on society due to sick leave, by stimulating participation in the labour market. Many jurisdictions have introduced activation policies, based on the premise that work “per se” has a therapeutic effect on sick-listed workers. People are expected to be “active”, rather than “passive”, recipients of financial benefits. However, there is limited knowledge of how activation policies focusing on return to work (RTW) are carried out in local practice. Against this background, the overall aim of this thesis is to study the local practice of activation policies by analysing how they are received, implemented and experienced by welfare state organizations, employers and sick-listed workers. The analysis has been influenced by theories concerning organization fields, individualization, street-level bureaucracy and organizational governance.In this thesis, the overall aim is investigated in four interrelated papers. In Paper I, the aim is to analyse the perspectives of stakeholders (i.e. welfare state actors and employers) on work ability by studying multistakeholder meetings. Paper II sheds light on activation policy, focusing on early RTW in the context of modern working conditions; the aim is to analyse RTW practice in local workplace contexts, in relation to Swedish early-RTW policy. The third paper focuses on employers, with the aim of analysing their role and activities regarding RTW, in local workplace practice. In Paper IV, the aim is to analyse sick-listed workers’ experiences of the sickness insurance system in their contact with the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (SSIA) and their front-line staff.The empirical material comprises two empirical studies: 1) audio-recorded multi-stakeholder meetings from regular practice (n=9) and 2) semi-structured interviews with sick-listed workers and their supervisors in 18 workplaces (n=36). The analyses of the material have been performed in accordance with the principles of qualitative content analysis.Main findings of the papers reflect strong organizational boundaries in the implementation process of activation policies. Welfare state actors and employers appear to be governed by their own organizational logics and interests, so the actors involved fail to take a holistic view of sick-listed workers and do not share a common social responsibility for individuals’ RTW. This thesis illustrates how current activation policies focusing on RTW are based on a rather idealized image of the standard workplace. There is an explicit or implicit assumption that employers and work organizations are able to welcome sick-listed workers back to work in a healthy way. However, the intensity of modern working life leaves limited room for accommodating people with reduced work ability, who are not considered to have a business value to the workplace. In several cases, findings indicate that the SSIA’s focus on activation and early RTW clashes with the financially oriented perspective of employers. Economic considerations regarding their business take precedence over legal and ethical considerations, and employers have difficulty taking social responsibility for RTW. Sick-listed workers are encouraged to adjust to new workplace settings and environments to meet the demands of the workplace, and, if RTW is not possible, to the demands of the labour market. The findings also show that sick-listed workers experience that contacts with the SSIA are ‘standardized’; i.e., they perceive that the officials are loyal  to demands in their organizations rather than being involved actors who support workers’ individual needs. Sick-listed workers clearly experience that measures in Swedish activation policies have a strong focus on demanding aspects (financial work incentives) and less on enabling aspects (investments in skills).Overall, this thesis illustrates an emerging social climate where sick-listed workers are positioned as active agents who must take responsibility for their sick leave and their RTW process. In a Swedish context, RTW is a matter of activating the sick-listed rather than activating the workplace.