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Foreign-born individuals reported fewer work environment problems during the pandemic


There were major differences between how foreign-born and Swedish-born experienced their work environment, according to a study in a laundromat in Ockelbo.

“Foreign-born perceived the work environment as being better than what their Swedish-born colleagues did, and now it is important to find the reasons for such differences,” says Jennie Jackson, a researcher at University of Gävle.

Tvätteriarbetare Elis i Ockelbo

Elis in Ockelbo, an international French company with large commercial laundromats worldwide, contacted researchers in Gävle due to issues with musculoskeletal disorders, but also because there were gender and equality concerns. Together, the researchers and the company developed a study to measure the effects of job rotation.

The first survey was conducted shortly before the pandemic outbreak, and the follow-up survey was conducted at the end of the first wave of the pandemic in August 2020. The study provided a unique opportunity to measure the effects of the pandemic on the work environment, and not just in any environment, but in a workplace dealing with hospital laundry from multiple hospitals, where the piles of yellow-marked infected sacks were growing.

Jennie Jackson

Jennie Jackson

“Elis is very interesting to us because their workforce consists of approximately 50 percent women and 50 percent men, and around 50 percent are foreign-born individuals. This is a significant mix of experiences and backgrounds that is quite unusual in a Swedish workplace,” Jennie Jackson says.

Results contrary to expectations

The hypothesis was that Swedish men would have the best experiences of the work environment conditions, and foreign-born women the worst. However, the researchers found very few differences between men and women. Instead, they discovered significant differences between Swedish-born and foreign-born individuals even before the pandemic. During the pandemic, everyone experienced a decline, but the decline was less pronounced for the foreign-born.

“Contrary to what one might expect, foreign-born individuals reported better work environment conditions before the pandemic and fewer effects of the pandemic compared to Swedish-born individuals.”

The significant differences during the pandemic were that while Swedish-born individuals reported an increase in quantitative and emotional demands, as well as poorer support from colleagues, foreign-born individuals reported an improvement in all these areas.

“The work environment is good; I don't need a weapon.”

Jennie Jackson emphasises that the study does not prove that Swedish-born individuals’ experiences were worse during the pandemic, because what people report can be greatly influenced by their previous life experiences.

“The question is how I perceive the effects of the pandemic if I have previously been in very stressful conditions.”

Jennie Jackson provides revealing examples where individuals responded: “I have a good work environment. Nobody shoots here, and I don’t have to bring a weapon to work.” Such statements can be compared with this response: “There’s no organic fruit anymore; the fruit basket even disappeared so that we wouldn’t take food from the same basket.”

The differences may also be an effect of the fact that foreign-born individuals may not understand their rights. Swedish-born individuals would not, for example, thank their employer at the end of the month when receiving their salary.

"For future comparisons between groups, we need to find a way to calibrate for previous experiences."

“It may be worse than we think”

This study made the researchers aware that differences between groups in the results can indicate actual differences in working conditions. However, the study also clarified that such differences may be an effect of differences in how survey questions are interpreted, how inclined one is to report negative aspects, and how previous experiences influence how the individual sees the present situation.

The researchers now see a need for more research on how to compare survey responses between groups with different cultural norms. Such approaches demand time and resources but they are necessary for researchers to truly understand the situation for immigrants.

“Previous studies established that immigrants often have more one-sided and heavy jobs, so, clearly, there are differences between the groups. However, now we understand that foreign-born individuals may not report poor working conditions to the same extent as Swedish-born individuals do, which means that the situation may be even worse than we think.”

Soon, the researchers in Gävle plan to publish the results of the effects of job rotation on musculoskeletal disorders but also on gender equality and equity.

“Together with the conclusions from this study on the impact of the pandemic, we hope to spread important knowledge that can affect many more people than just the employees at a laundromat in Sweden,” Jennie Jackson says.

Scientific artice


Text: Douglas Öhrbom
Photo Jennie Jackson: Private


The project is linked to the University’s research programme 'Inclusive Working Life.' The programme aims to promote equal and gender-equal working conditions that contribute to health and well-being for everyone, regardless of work capacity, age, gender, and origin.


Jennie Jackson, researcher in occupational health science at University of Gävle
Phone: 072-304 79 95
E-mail: jennie.jackson@hig.se

Published by: Douglas Öhrbom Page responsible: Anders Munck Updated: 2023-09-20
Högskolan i Gävle
Box 801 76 GÄVLE
026-64 85 00 (växel)