Work-related stress among municipal employees in rural northern Sweden

Abstract: Background: Many rural municipalities in Sweden are facing challenges like depopulation, decreased economy, and difficulties in recruiting staff. Living and working in rural areas may involve adverse working conditions and higher risks of ill-health. Work is generally good for employee health, but various physical and psychosocial aspects of work can also be hazards and cause work-related stress, health problems, reduced productivity, and long-term sick leave. Leadership by managers in the organisation is important for the work environment, work performance, and occupational health of employees. The Swedish municipal sector employs almost 20% of employees in the labour market, where school, preschool and care of older people are the dominating areas. Previous research has shown that there are adverse psychosocial working conditions in Swedish municipal organisations. The municipal sector has the highest rate of long-term sick leave compared to other sectors in the labour market, mainly due to stress-related disorders, such as exhaustion disorder (ED). Therefore, it is important to focus on organisational and psychosocial work environments, work-related stress, and health in the municipal sector of rural northern Sweden.Aim: The overall aim was to explore organisational and psychosocial work environments, work-related stress, and health among municipal employees in rural northern Sweden.Methods: Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used to collect data. Study I and II had a quantitative approach, a cross-sectional design, and used a questionnaire for collecting data. Participants were employees (n =1093) in the municipal sector in two municipalities in rural northern Sweden. The questionnaire was constructed to contain instruments measuring the organisational and psychosocial work environments, perceived stress, self-rated exhaustion disorder (s-ED), and physical activity. Quantitative data were analysed using logistic regression in Study I, and partial least squares regression in Study II. Studies III and IV had a qualitative approach. In Study III, semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with 15 municipal employees with high self-reported stress. In Study IV, semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with 15 managers at different levels in the municipal sector. All qualitative data were analysed using inductive qualitative content analysis.Results: In Study I, results showed that 21.5 % of the municipal employees reported s-ED.Cognitive problems, sleep problems,depressiveivsymptoms, high stress, poor self-rated health, and stomach problems were the health-related factors most strongly associated with s-ED. In Study II, results showed that there were significant differences between the s-ED and the non–s-ED group in all but one of the 32 organisational and psychosocial environmental work factors. Various demands—i.e., quantitative, emotional, intellectual—and work conflicts were important factors associated with s-ED. Social support, resources, and time for work and reflection were important factors associated with non–s-ED. Findings from Study III showed that the employees with high self-reported stress experienced feelings of suffering through endless chaos when they worked in an organisation with high demands and low resources, control, and support. They also experienced feelings of insufficiency, and negative effects on health and family life. Findings from Study IV showed that managers in the municipal sector experienced feelings of striving for stability on shaky ground. They struggled inside slimmed-down organisations with a substitute shortage and reduced means, were burdened by conflicting demands, and experienced health and family life impairments. Managers expressed the importance of motivation, social support, and coping strategies.Conclusion: This thesis illuminates adverse psychosocial working conditions among municipal employees in two municipalities in the rural context of northern Sweden, where a stressful work environment, s-ED and health impairments are relatively common.It also provides important insights of municipal employee’s experiences of work-related stress, the importance of acknowledging suffering, and managers’ experiences of working in municipal organisations with shrinking resources, as in addition to a work–family imbalance. It seems important that organisations in the municipal sector have supportive and effective leadership, and allow employees control over their work. Furthermore, it seems important that various demands are balanced by sufficient resources; such as staff, social support, and economic resources in order to prevent work-related stress. Findings from this thesis can contribute to future interventions, aiming to prevent work-related stress and improve occupational well-being and work performance. They also have value for development work in municipal organisations.