Swedish Legislation to Protect Workers against Workplace Bullying.

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“The anti-bullying movement began in Sweden. In the 1980’s, ex-patriat German Heinz Leymann (1932-1999), psychologist and doctor of medical science, studied worker trauma. He established a unique clinic at Violen for individuals traumatized by the workplace. His scientific articles linking mobbing (bullying) to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were published from 1990 to 1999. He wrote books and became a staunch advocate to stop bullying at work. Excerpt taken from The Workplace Bullying Institute     http://www.workplacebullying.org/the-movement/

The following is an excerpt taken from 2013 JILPT Seminar on Workplace Bullying and Harassment http://www.jil.go.jp/english/reports/documents/jilpt-reports/no.12.pdf

Leymann (1990) defined mobbing as hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one or a number of persons, mainly towards one individual. These actions often take place (almost every day) over a long period (at least for six months) and because of this frequency and duration, result in considerable psychic, psychosomatic and social misery (1990). Such hostile and unethical activities repeated frequently over long periods of time can change the climate of the workplace and stigmatize the exposed individual. The bullying is legitimized when workplace management accepts and adopts prejudices concerning the stigmatized person. Bullying implies an imbalance in the power between the bullied victim and the bully.” (Thylefors 1999)

“The process of bullying can be described as developing through slander, deceit, insults, injustice, or special treatment. Its purpose is to alienate the bullied individual from the community at work, and finally from the workplace itself. Bullying appears to be to an attempt solve problems at the workplace, but these continue in other forms and involve other people after the bullied individual has been expelled.” Strandmark & Hallberg 2007b.

Hallberg & Strandmark (2006) explored the health consequences of workplace Bullying. Adult bullying is perceived by its victims as a severe psychological trauma or a traumatic life event. Sub categories included  1) feeling guilt, shame and diminishing self-esteem, 2) developing symptoms and reactions, 3) getting limited space for action, 4) working through the course of events, and 5) trying to obtain redress. Bullying included the spreading of rumours and repeated insults aimed at changing the image of the bullied person negatively, resulting in feelings of guilt, shame and diminishing self-esteem in the exposed person. Physical and psychosomatic symptoms gradually emerged ( developing symptoms and reactions ) and medical treatment often follow. The longer the bullying continued, the more limited became the possibility to change the situation ( getting limited space for action ), such as changing the workplace. Returning to a normal life might be possible, but presupposed the process of working through the course of events related to the bullying. This process was often painful, as events from bullying are re-lived over and over again, both in dreams and when awake. The bullied person was also trying to obtain redress through such means as monetary compensation, professional confirmation, or by gaining a new meaning in life.

Despite this, bullying left an internal scar or vulnerability they never entirely heal; the bullied person remains marked for life. The following excerpt from the interviews illustrates the core category:

 No, I will never forget the bullying, never ever. There is still a large scar left inside me. I always have to carry this scar with me . . . . and I have never managed to understand the bullies, either. That was an episode that now has passed away and now I have to continue living my life. But I think it would have been much easier to live my life without this scar inside. . . . that is what I think . . . . definitely. When I, for example, read in the paper about someone being bullied somewhere, the old scar reopens and it hurts. In some way I must try to repress it all the time . . . . if it is possible.

The Swedish Work Environment Act (SFS: 2008) states the grounds for a good work environment. The purpose of this act is to prevent ill-health and accidents at work and generally promote a positive atmosphere environment. The law says that work circumstances shall be adjusted to human beings different prerequisites taking into account physical and psychological considerations. It should strive to enable variation, social contact, and collaboration, and connection between individual work tasks. Another basic law that opposes bullying is the Criminal Code (SFS 1962:700), including avoidance of powerlessness, abuse of one’ s exposed disposition, and insulting behaviour. Sweden published its first legal regulation (AFS 1993:17) targeting workplace bullying  in the early 1990s. It is entitled Victimization at Work.

Swedish legislation:

  • outlawed “recurrent reprehensible or distinctly negative actions which are directed against individual employees in an offensive manner and can result in those employees being placed outside the workplace community”;
  • created a duty for employers to swiftly investigate, mediate and counter any instances of bullying as well as implement preventative organizational measures against workplace bullying; and
  • took a “non-punitive” approach to bullying by aiming to resolve the problem through dialogue and consensus rather than through sanctioning employers.


However, Hoel and Einarsen (2010) have evaluated the effect of the ordinance Victimization at Work by semi-structured interviews with 18 stakeholders from employer and trade unions, enforcement authorities, academia, and victims support organizations. They conclude that the legislation has been far from successful. Their findings show that the ordinance has shortcomings related to the vagueness of its regulations, difficulties in engaging employers control and in managing attitudes and human relationships, problems with the Labour Inspectorate, and lack of progress in getting responses from the trade unions. They argued that the prevailing Swedish culture appears to sanction tacit bullying and the right to exclude somebody from the workplace.

Hoel and Einarsen went on to argue that the legislation must be supported by a competent enforcement agency.

In 2012 GullBritt Rahm et al. also found that there was still a prevalence of workplace bullying in Sweden. Their research shows the following;

  • Prevalence from 3.5% to 11%
  • 18.5% were bullied based on the critera of one negative act per week during the last six months (Leymann 1996)
  • 6.8% were bullied by two negative acts per week during the last six month (Mikkelsen & Einarsen 2001)
  • 4% experienced self-labelled bullying
  • 22% had witnessed bullying
  • 38% had been bullied earlier in life
  • 8.5% had been occupational bullied
  • 2.3% had been exposed to severe bullying

In summary then, it seems to me that Sweden takes bullying in the workplace seriously and has done so over a long period of time. Swedish research shows the life time harm bullying  does to its victims and legislation has been enacted, the first country to have done so. Sadly though, research shows that  legislation has not been strong enough as there is no competent enforcement agency to take action against perpetrators of bullying.

Country after country have reported the negative impact workplace bullying has upon the efficiency of the workplace organization and the long term health problems the victims suffer. Both of these problems then causes a huge financial drain upon each of the economies. Many countries have acknowledged that legislation is necessary to help combat this workplace problem but as we have seen with Sweden’s experience, a strong competent enforcement agency is also necessary.

In the UK, we have still got to persuade our policy makers to acknowledge that there is a problem with regard to bullying in the workplace and effective legislation is required to combat it. Next week let’s look at the reasons our policy makers have given for not implementing legislation contrary to our European counterparts.

Support the campaign to introduce legislation to protect workers against workplace bullying in the UK.


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