Sustainable Work in Europe

Concepts, Conditions, Challenges

by Kenneth Abrahamsson (Volume editor) Richard Ennals (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection 342 Pages


Sustainable Work in Europe brings together a strong core of Swedish working
life research, with additional contributions from across Europe, and discussion
of current issues such as digitalisation, climate change and the Covid pandemic.
It bridges gaps between social science and medicine, and adds emphasis on
age and gender. The book links workplace practice, theory and policy, and is
intended to provide the basis for ongoing debate and dialogue.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Tables
  • Preface: What you will learn from reading this book (Allan Larsson)
  • Foreword (Richard Ennals)
  • I Sustainable work, job quality and equality
  • Sustainable work in Europe: Introductory remarks (Kenneth Abrahamsson)
  • Sustainable work, climate change and job quality (Kenneth Abrahamsson)
  • Eurofound’s reference framework: Sustainable work over the life course in the EU (Franz Ferdinand Eiffe)
  • Monotonous and repetitive work: Some people are more unequal than others (Frank Pot)
  • Sustainable work for health and job longevity (Maria Albin, Theo Bodin and Eskil Wadensjö)
  • Challenges to a sustainable working life for older women in Europe (Susan Reh, Shruti Raghuraman, Åsa Lundqvist, Victoria Tischler, Emma Jeanes and Laura Trigg)
  • High and rising senior employment in the Nordic countries (Bjørn Einar Halvørsen)
  • Sustainable work and creative leisure? Some reflections (Russell D. Lansbury)
  • II Sustainable workplace innovations, digitalisation, and the green revolution
  • The dynamics and (job) qualities of sustainable work (Christopher Mathieu and Susanne Boethius)
  • Digitalisation and Sustainable work: Obstacles and pathways (Lena Abrahamsson and Jan Johansson)
  • Towards competitive sustainable work and green industrial transformation (Ulrika Harlin, Martina Berglund, Katrin Skagert, Andreas Wallo and Mattias Elg)
  • Perspectives on the circular economy and its effects for occupational safety and health (Cornelia Daheim, Jessica Prendergast, Jörg Rampacher, Annick Starren, Emmanuelle Brun and Ioannis Anyfantis)
  • III From policy to practice: Channels of implementation
  • Workplace innovation: Are we serious? (Peter Totterdill and Rosemary Exton)
  • The shifting role of European unions in the social dialogue: Sweden in a comparative context (Anders Kjellberg)
  • Promoting health and safety for sustainable workplaces: A PEROSH perspective (Mary Trainor, Louis Laurent, Jan Michiel Meeuwsen and Paulien Bongers)
  • Stressors at work and elsewhere: a global survival approach (Lennart Levi)
  • Towards Sustainable Workplace Innovations: Concluding Reflections (Kenneth Abrahamsson)
  • Postscript (Richard Ennals)
  • About the Authors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Fig. 1. Eurofound sustainable work framework.

Fig. 2. Macro-level sustainable work outcomes, EU27.

Fig. 3. Remaining life expectancy at age 30 by highest attained educational level. Women.

Fig. 4. Remaining years with and without activity limitations at age 30, 2016–2017. From Statistics Sweden (2018).

Fig. 5. Proportion (%) of occupationally active men and women by educational level, who report that physical work demands exceed their capacity, Stockholm county. From Centrum för arbets- och miljömedicin (2016).

Fig. 6. Proportion of women aged 20–64 (%) outside the labour force due to caring responsibilities in 2019. European Union (EU-28) average is shown together with individual countries above average. Source: Eurostat (2022).

Fig. 7. Employment rates 55–64 years old* in the Nordic countries 2000–2020.

Fig. 8. Employment rates 55–64 yo. Men and women. Selected European countries 2020.

Fig. 9. Activating versus pacifying spirals.

Fig. 10. Enablers for sustainable development of organisations, exemplified by change processes related to approaches towards sustainable industry and green industrial transformation, modified from Harlin and Berglund (2020) and Svensson and Brulin (2014).

Fig. 11. Overall project approach.

Fig. 12. Booth Welsh’s strategic pillars.

Fig. 13. Structure of PEROSH under the Steering Committee of institute directors.

Fig. 14. Research priorities by European geographical area on a scale of 5 (high) to 1 (low) from PEROSH study.

Fig. 15. The PEROSH Wellbeing Tree: Employer Version.

Fig. 16. The Risks–Trends Interconnections Map 2018. Source: The Global Risks Report 2018 13th Edition, WEF.

Fig. 17. Circles of change shaping the context for the social dialogue on sustainable and greener jobs.

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Tab. 1. Overview of work improvement programmes and quality focus with reference to sustainable work and green jobs.

Tab. 2. Overview of sustainable work outcome indicators (micro- and macro-level), 2020.

Tab. 3. Does your job involve short repetitive tasks of less than 1 minute? Does your job involve short repetitive tasks of less than 10 minutes?

Tab. 4. Proportion (%) of occupationally active women and men reporting that mental or physical job demands exceed their capacity, and proportion believing that they will not be able to remain in present job for health reasons in two years, County of Stockholm.

Tab. 5. Senior employment rates in the Nordic countries. Percentage of five-year age groups.

Tab. 6. Working life indicators for older workers in the Nordic countries and OECD 2018.

Tab. 7. QuInnE’s bespoke approach to job quality.

Tab. 8. Number of case studies and interviews per industry and country.

Tab. 9. Structure of the chapter: Context, content and process.

Tab. 10. Industrial examples on circularity approaches “closing loops”.

Tab. 11. Industrial examples enabling organisational resilience.

Tab. 12. Industrial examples of competence strategies.

Tab. 13. Industrial examples on designing for sustainable work.

Tab. 14. Industrial examples of stakeholder collaboration during changes.

Tab. 15. The Essential Fifth Element.

Tab. 16. Pillar refresh.

Tab. 17. Union density in Sweden among blue-collar and white-collar workers by country of birth, 2006–2020 (% and percentage points).

Tab. 18. Number of employees in Sweden and abroad in the 80 largest Swedish-owned manufacturing groups, 1980−2019

Tab. 19. Number of employees in Sweden and abroad in all Swedish-owned international groups, 1993−2019.

Tab. 20. Union density in 27 EU/EES countries, 2000–2020 (%).

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Tab. 21. Coverage of collective agreements in the EU/EES countries, 2000–2020.

Tab. 22. France and Sweden compared.

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Allan Larsson

Preface: What you will learn from reading this book

Never in modern times has Working Europe been faced with such a fundamental and far-reaching transition pressure. We are at the beginning of two powerful transition processes, innovation-driven digital transformation, and policy-driven climate transition. On top of these processes, we are now facing a pandemic-driven restructuring of important sectors of our economies and the way we are working.

That is what this book is about. I am proud to introduce this new thinking to you. It has been a privilege for me to work with a great team of academics and experts, to better understand these perspectives and the potential of new policies and initiatives. This book offers a new intellectual framework for thinking and planning for the future of work in Europe

It highlights research, current policies, and innovative ways to support more sustainable work in Europe. It places job-quality in a new context of labour market transformation, driven not only by international competition and full employment policies. It takes a deeper look at mechanisms of change, and driving forces caused by digitalisation, climate change and the erratic pandemic. It also looks at sustainable work in a life-course perspective, followed by senior employment. Successful sustainable work presupposes social protection, and gender-based welfare systems, including pension rights. Finally, policies for equality and equity over the life span are good both for the individual, and for society, and for the world of work.

By combining knowledge about the ongoing transformation processes and the policy process, represented by UN Sustainable Development Goals and the European Pillar of Social Rights, this book provides a joint arena for new thinking and planning for the future.

I hope this book will inspire you to take research and policies forward in new and innovative ways.

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Richard Ennals


Over recent years, European workplaces have been subject to a high level of turbulence and pressure, due to digitalisation and green transformation. The ongoing Covid pandemic has reshaped working conditions, and led to hybrid work for some groups, and increasing health stress for those who cannot work from home. Various strategies to meet the new challenges have been developed by countries, social partners, and companies. All countries in Europe, whether or not they are members of the European Union, are struggling with the new uncertainty, and with social and labour market challenges. The European Union has launched the major recovery programme “Next Generation EU”. The policy dialogue on basic income at European level, and in various member countries, has been confronted by the Nordic model, highlighting collective agreements, and giving the social partners a major role. The European Road to Sustainable Work must build on two perspectives: healthy and productive working conditions over the life-course, and the policies and measures to achieve a low carbon and non-fossil-based society and working life.

The Nordic tradition of Working Life Research, underpinned by a set of core values which have been shared across political divides over several decades, provides an important alternative to the dominant model of liberal capitalism which has been favoured in the United States and the United Kingdom.

This book seeks to present this Swedish approach, together with developments in the European Union. Theory is linked to practice and to policy. Furthermore, this project is undertaken at a time of tumultuous change in technology, economics, and society. This book builds on a special double issue 6.1-2, March 2021, of the European Journal of Workplace Innovation, of which I am editor in chief. Most chapters have been revised for this book, and some completely new chapters have been added. As a result, the book offers a broader European perspective on Sustainable Work.

The Preface was contributed by Allan Larsson, who has had a distinguished career as Swedish Minister of Finance, Director-General of Employment and Social Affairs in the European Commission, and continues as personal adviser to several senior national and international figures; not to mention his efforts to facilitate and co-ordinate the major policy dialogue leading to the European Pillar of Social Rights.←15 | 16→

The lead editor is Kenneth Abrahamsson, who is a veteran manager and funder of Swedish Working Life Research, and adjunct professor in Human Work Science, Luleå University of Technology. He has led the collaborative process which resulted in both the journal special double issue and this book.

Contributors include Lennart Levi, international doyen of Psychosocial Medicine, who served as a member of the Swedish Parliament for ten years. Swedish authors are from several disciplines and institutions. Their chapters are complemented by perspectives from the European Union, from Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA and Perosh), and from the European Workplace Innovation Network (EUWIN).

I have taken the role of honorary co-editor, because I believe that it is very important to have a clear presentation of the future of Sustainable Work, as seen in Sweden and the European Union. At present the government in my own country, the UK, has preferred to follow different policies, following departure from the European Union. We can learn from the experience of colleagues in Sweden and other Nordic countries, as well as from the European Union. One day we may have the opportunity to put such alternative ideas into practice in the UK.

We gratefully acknowledge the invaluable support of many colleagues during the stages of the collaborative project which has resulted in this book, including Maria Albin, Elisabeth Lagerlöf and Chris Mathieu, who co-edited the earlier double special issue of the European Journal of Workplace Innovation, and Hans Christian Garmann Johnsen, Hildegunn Aslaksen and Clare Hildebrandt, members of the journal editorial team.

January 2022

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Kenneth Abrahamsson

Sustainable work in Europe: Introductory remarks

Much is changing. Globalisation, digitalisation, international competition, new demographic, and technological transformations are having fundamental impacts on working conditions, working hours and the location of work. The development towards work without boundaries, a platform economy and labour market polarisation have significant repercussions for employment relations, social protection, and the role of social partners. Temporary jobs and precarious working conditions are increasing in the service sector, while high-performance jobs are becoming more common in the advanced manufacturing sector. More knowledge is needed on how to accomplish secure and adaptable employment, health and safety at work, proper work life balance, a good social dialogue and effective participation of workers. New workplace innovations for job quality, productivity and growth are increasingly necessary on the road to future work. Equality, social protection, and improvement of living and working conditions are major visions, both in the ILO’s 2019 centenary mission, and in the UN Sustainable Development Goals to be attained by 2030.

Scenarios and projections of the future of work is a policy field in its own. In 1995 the American futurist and policy thinker Jeremy Rifkin presented his book The End of Work. The Decline of the Global Labour Force and the Dawn of the Post Market Era. Rifkin’s ideas and contributions have been subject to criticism and discussion over the years (Rifkin, 1995). It has also strengthened scientific interest in the concepts of jobless growth and technological disruptions. Over the years, employment rates and the number of full-time employees has shifted. Back in the mid-1990s there were deep concerns over growth and employment. In the public debate, there were various explanations for the weak performance of EU Member States: trade and technology. Today, more than 25 years later, we know more about the interaction between technology, trade, and employment

Employment rate in EU countries vary substantially. In 2020, the share of the population aged 20–64 in work was, on average 72.3 %. Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany had on employment rate over 80 %, while many countries in the other end range less than 70.0 %; e.g. Croatia, Spain, Italy and Greece from 66,9 % to 61.1 % in that order (Eurostat, 2021). One of the explanations is lower levels of women employment in some European countries. There have also been major ←19 | 20→fluctuations in unemployment level and employment rate the last two decades, mainly caused by the repercussions of the financial crises 2008 and the current impact of the pandemic. There is no current evidence that we are approach the end of work, rather there has been an increase in the service sector and in various forms of self-employment.1

A report written by Michel Servoz, a former DG of DG Employment in the EU-Commission, points at that 90 % of jobs now require IT-skills and that sixty-one million people in the EU have insufficient basic skills (Servoz 2019). The major focus of this policy study is to highlight and analyse the impact of the digital revolution, AI, new technology and robotics on labour markets, job structures but also the continous change in skills required, job destruction, job creation and job retention.2

As this report has shown, a major shift in the economy is taking place. All the major components of automation are increasingly taking over various tasks traditionally carried out by people or performing tasks that were beyond reach until now. This transformation seems to be taking place silently, effortlessly, but in fact creates insecurity and anxiety for many workers, citizens, consumers and patients as to the place of humans in society.

Today the digital challenge operates together with the green transition and non-fossil future policies, and followed by the pandemic shock and its impact on society, public health and working life.

The aim of this book is to highlight European approaches to sustainable work, digitalisation, and job-related transitions, in the context of the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights and the European Social models. A starting point for this research initiative was a Swedish project, headed by Maria Albin, of the Karolinska Institute, Sweden and financed by the Swedish Innovation Agency, Vinnova. Its purpose was to strengthen research on sustainable work in the European Framework Programme Horizon 2020, and later Horizon Europe.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 342 pp., 19 fig. b/w, 22 tables.

Biographical notes

Kenneth Abrahamsson (Volume editor) Richard Ennals (Volume editor)

Kenneth Abrahamsson is the former programme director, Swedish Research Council for Health, Work and Welfare, and an adjunct professor, Human Work Science, Luleå University of Technology, Sweden. Richard Ennals is Emeritus Professor at Kingston University, UK, and Editor in Chief of the European Journal of Workplace Innovation.


Title: Sustainable Work in Europe