Skellefteå nursing assistants walk out, citing brutal workloads

Nursing assistants at Skärgårdshemmet care facility in Skelleftehamn have resigned in protest, citing unsustainable work conditions. Their departure is part of a larger trend, with resignations from healthcare and nursing in Skellefteå municipality spiking in 2022 and remaining high in 2023.

Annica Gimell, Kerstin Lindahl Wikström, Kicki Fredriksson, and Towe Andresen at Skärgårdshemmet have previously expressed their frustration in Norran.

Annica Gimell, Kerstin Lindahl Wikström, Kicki Fredriksson, and Towe Andresen at Skärgårdshemmet have previously expressed their frustration in Norran.

Foto: Karin Israelsson

Skelleftehamn2024-05-20 15:16

Skellefteå municipality saw a significant increase in resignations from care and social care workers in 2022 compared to previous years. Roughly 100 more employees left their positions in 2022. While resignations dipped slightly in 2023, the numbers remain higher than those seen in 2020 and 2021.

The union, Kommunal, attributes this trend to challenging work conditions, and employee testimonies support this view. Three assistant nurses at Skärgårdshemmet in Skelleftehamn will be leaving their positions on July 31. While they would prefer to stay, they claim that the current work situation is untenable.

– It's frustrating, says Kicki Fredriksson, one of the departing nurses.

In mid-April, Fredriksson and several colleagues spoke out about their long-standing struggle with heavy workloads. They presented their employer with a list of three specific demands: an end to split shifts, a reduction in weekend shifts, and fewer work shifts for part-time staff.

Kommunal, the Swedish union for employees in the municipal sector, blames the exodus on tough working conditions. Employees themselves point to excessive workloads, including split shifts, frequent weekend shifts, and demanding schedules for part-time staff. Kicki Fredriksson, a nursing assistant at Skärgårdshemmet, spoke out about the situation, calling it "unbearable."

In mid-April, Fredriksson and her colleagues submitted a list of demands to the employer, requesting an end to split shifts, fewer weekend shifts, and reduced workloads for part-time staff. They received no response until late April and allege management declined a meeting to discuss their concerns.

–They haven't even chosen to sit down with us but instead just send emails, said Fredriksson.

– It's sad that no one listens.

She fears a continuation of current trends will lead to disaster, questioning how many managers would accept similar working conditions.

What do you think about the employer's attitude?

– The employer's actions speak for themselves – there's been a complete lack of commitment. We haven't received anything concrete from them. They haven't even agreed to meet with us in person, preferring to communicate solely through emails, says Fredriksson.

– Disappointingly, the employer seems uninterested in listening to our concerns. A budget would be a good starting point. With resources, we could demonstrate our ability to retain staff and attract new hires. Instead, they cling to theoretical solutions while working conditions deteriorate at an alarming rate, driving away employees. It's a recipe for disaster! Honestly, how many people would even consider these positions with such a demanding schedule?

Anki Pettersson, section chair at Kommunal Skellefteå, echoes these concerns.

Employee churn in Skellefteå municipality's care and social services departments skyrocketed in 2022, with resignations exceeding 230 compared to an average of 130 per year in the previous two years.

– It's really sad that they don't listen to the staff, Pettersson said. 

– These are the signals starting to come from the workplaces. That we can't bear it anymore, she says.

– In 2024, despite being well into the 21st century, healthcare conditions are steadily deteriorating. This has created a vicious cycle: with worsening conditions, fewer people are drawn to training in healthcare, leading to a further decline in care quality. This raises a critical question: will there be any functioning aged care system in 15-20 years? Are we facing a future reminiscent of the 1920s, with a return to "poor houses" and multi-generational households simply because the care system has collapsed?

Linda Dehlin, the head of care and social care, responded to Norran's inquiries via email.

Three assistant nurses at Skärgårdshemmet have resigned. What do you think about that?

– We naturally regret the departure of any employee, so it's disheartening when individuals choose to leave our organization. However, I prefer not to delve into individual personnel matters in public statements.

Why did it take two weeks for your employees to receive a response to their letter? 

– The employees had requested a timely response, which we provided within the specified timeframe. As a large organization with 2,200 employees, we strive to address issues promptly. However, urgent matters may sometimes delay our responses.

Can you understand their disappointment? It likely stems from two factors: a lack of perceived effort to lighten their workload and a feeling of being unheard due to the absence of open communication.

– We regularly hold collaboration meetings with municipal authorities at all levels, typically scheduled monthly. It's unfortunate if employees feel their concerns weren't adequately addressed during these sessions. We place a strong emphasis on workplace meetings, where unit managers engage directly with employees, fostering open dialogue and addressing work environment issues. "

Anki Pettersson, section chairperson at the Kommunal union in Skellefteå, is certain that the working conditions are behind the increasing number of resignations.

Kommunal think it's sad that you don't seem to be listening to your employees. They also say that signals from the workplaces indicate that energy is running low, and it is important to review how to improve their conditions.

– We are committed to fostering a culture of open dialogue and actively listening to our employees. We provide multiple avenues for communication, including workplace meetings, collaboration sessions, and employee surveys. Our goal is to maintain close engagement with employees and address their concerns effectively. However, we acknowledge the significant challenges in the care and social care sector. The ageing population has resulted in a higher workload for a smaller workforce. These are complex issues that require ongoing collaboration with Kommunal to find effective solutions.

Skellefteå municipality saw an increase in resignations from care and social care workers between 2020 and 2022. Roughly 130 people left their positions annually in 2020 and 2021, but that number jumped to around 230 in 2022. Even in 2023, resignations remained high, with nearly 220 departures.

Anki Pettersson of Kommunal believes deteriorating work conditions are driving this trend.

– We've seen a clear decline in working conditions, she says.

– Increased weekend shifts, inflexible schedules, and a significantly heavier workload are creating immense strain on staff. Caregivers feel immense pressure due to not having enough time to fulfill their duties, leading to burnout and ultimately resignation.

Camilla Lindström, HR manager of social services, however, does not share the picture.

– We saw a significant spike in resignations in 2022. The pandemic years were relatively stable, with many employees staying on. However, as restrictions eased, employee mobility increased. The competitive job market in Skellefteå, with its abundance of opportunities, is likely a contributing factor. Interestingly, some who resigned in 2022 have since returned. Perhaps we need to adapt to a certain level of ongoing employee churn in this new environment.

Linda Dehlin, head of care and social services in Skellefteå municipality, says that it is unfortunate that several people from Skärgårdshemmet have chosen to leave. "We certainly do not want to lose a single employee."

The union argues that more people are quitting due to worsening work conditions. What are your thoughts on that?

– We don't agree with that view, Lindström replies.

– The number of resignations in 2023 isn't higher than in 2022. And I don't really recognize this claim that working conditions have gotten worse. We've been trying to improve them, she continues.

– One way we've seen improvement is that more and more people are getting permanent positions, and we're offering a 20 percent higher compensation for inconvenient working hours on weekends.

Camilla Lindström, HR manager at the social services office, says that more people are choosing to leave due to the healthy job market. "I believe we have to get used to a certain level of turnover."

During 2023, there were 665 new permanent positions created across the social services' three departments: care and social services, support and service, and individual and family care. This number includes staff who left and were then re-hired.

Lindström goes on to say that certain areas that staff were previously unhappy with are difficult to address entirely. For example, some employees feel they work too many inconvenient hours.

– The residents who live with us need support every day of the week, regardless of whether it's a weekday or weekend.

She claims that the perception among some staff that it's harder to influence their schedules is difficult to address because it's related to the EU tightening regulations around daily rest periods.

An analysis of Skellefteå municipality's exit survey identifies staff concerns. A recurring theme is the desire for the municipality to make better use of employee skills and knowledge.

Skellefteå municipality has recently implemented a retirement exit survey. 

According to Lindström, HR manager of the social services, more than a hundred responses revealed that departing employees generally enjoyed their work, colleagues, and managers. However, there were also areas for improvement.

Respondents expressed a desire for better career opportunities and more focused use of their skills. The municipality is actively addressing these concerns, says Lindström.

– We're taking multiple steps. One initiative focuses on competence development. Within care and social services, we're redesigning work tasks. Nurses will be able to perform more tasks aligned with their skills, while service personnel will be hired to handle cleaning, laundry, and similar duties.

Lindström also mentions the availability of learning centers with bookable trainers, along with investments in language development and work environment improvements to reduce sick leave.

– In 2024, we'll be focusing more on workplace health factors. We'll collaborate with Suntarbetsliv at two pilot locations to identify strengths within work groups and explore ways to develop and maintain them.

Pettersson, of Kommunal, emphasizes the union's desire for increased funding for care and social services.

– Perhaps diverting a half-percent more of Skellefteå Kraft's profit to invest in healthcare could be a solution, she suggests.

– This investment is crucial for maintaining competence and retaining skilled staff.

Pettersson acknowledges that some level of employee turnover is inevitable.

– There will always be people who change jobs, she says.

– However, excessive turnover undermines stability. This is a local and national issue, she concludes, advocating for increased state funding for healthcare.

Resignations: 2020-23

2020: 107 women and 26 men (total 133) 
2021: 111 women and 26 men (total 137) 
2022: 178 women and 54 men (total 232) 
2023: 148 women and 70 men (total 218)

Source: Skellefteå municipality