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University of Gothenburg

"The Nordic model": historical background, operationalization of the concept and its potential significance for the development of sustainable production systems

Working life is subject to constant interventions, partly to reduce work-related absenteeism and partly to rationalize production. The systematic review by Westgaard & Winkel (2011) concluded, among other things, that it is difficult to demonstrate long-term positive effects of ergonomic interventions, while rationalizations have a dominant negative effect on employee health. Thus, there seems to be a conflict between these two types of workplace interventions. An important research issue, therefore, is to investigate possible contextual factors that enable integration of ergonomic workplace interventions and rationalizations into the same strategy; i.e. efforts that increase organizational sustainability defined as “the joint consideration of competitive performance and working conditions in a long term perspective”.

A key issue is that the ergonomic and rationalization interventions are "owned" by different stakeholders, employee representatives and security personnel versus senior executives and rationalization engineers. Communication between these stakeholders often works poorly. At EU meetings in Brussels, we have observed strong conflicts between "Business Europe" and the European Trade Union Confederation. A reduction of these types of conflicts between the stakeholders seems crucial to achieve better integration of work environment issues with rationalization of production systems towards increased organizational sustainability.

Our review Westgaard & Winkel (2011) concludes, among other things, that knowledge of the importance of communication / dialogue between the various intervention stakeholders is established knowledge in some organizations. But this insight has apparently rarely led to more sustainable production systems.

We believe that the Nordic countries have unique qualifications for making significant improvements in this area, both scientifically and through development work at the workplace. "The Nordic model" has regulated relations in our part of the world (Guðmundsson 1993). It has, in the light of our special historical circumstances, gradually developed over a period of several hundred years. The Nordic model has been the subject of extensive discussions and studies supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers (Schiller et al 1993, Fleming et al 1998, Fleming and Thörnqvist 2003). The broader concept of the "Nordic model" is somewhat more difficult to define (Schiller et al. 1993), but contains "gentlemen's agreement" and trust between the parties. This is probably reflected in the choice and procedure of implementing intervention strategies in the Nordic countries (Schramm-Nielsen et al. 2004). There is a high degree of "social capital" in the Nordic countries. This includes three cornerstones: teamwork, trust and justice. Studies show that Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland hold the leading positions 1-4 in the world in terms of social capital (Tinggaard Svendsen & Lind Haase Svendsen 2006) and this may have played a key role in the impressive economic growth in these countries (Olesen et al 2008).

On this background the Nordic Council of Ministers supported in 2007 our establishment of a Nordic research network, the Novo Network. The vision was and is a "Nordic model for sustainable systems in healthcare". As part of this work, we are now focusing on the possible significance of the "Nordic model" and how this can be further explored to facilitate future initiatives for increased organizational sustainability. Some key issues:

  • How can the Nordic model be explained historically?
  • Can the Nordic model be operationalized?
  • Is the Nordic model challenged by globalization?
  • Can the Nordic model be investigated, e.g. through case studies?
  • Can / should the Nordic model be further investigated to promote intervention processes towards increased organizational sustainability? (and thus support our vision: "a Nordic intervention model for sustainable production systems")

Annual Nordic symposia are also organized by the NOVO network under the leadership of Dr. Kasper Edwards, Technical University of Denmark. See also


Abstracts and presentations at a number of international scientific meetings, for example:

Westgaard R H, Winkel J. Occupational musculoskeletal and mental health: significance of rationalization and opportunities to create sustainable production systems – a systematic review. Applied Ergonomics, 42, 261-296, 2011

Winkel J, Edwards K, Dellve L, Schiller B, Westgaard R H. The NOVO Network: the original scientific basis for its establishment and our R&D vision. In: (Eds.) L. Dellve, E. Wikström, L. Björk, M. Wolmesjö, S. Larsson Fällmanand. Abstract book of the 11th NOVO symposium, Gothenburg, 9-10 November, 2017, p. 35. ISBN: 978-91-87876-17-2. Published by Gothenburg University.

Schiller B, Winkel J, Edwards K, Dellve L, Westgaard R H. “The Nordic model”: historical origins and its significance for the work place dialogue towards increased organizational sustainability. In: (Eds.) L. Dellve, E. Wikström, L. Björk, M. Wolmesjö, S. Larsson Fällmanand. Abstract book of the 11th NOVO symposium, Gothenburg, 9-10 November, 2017, p. 28. ISBN: 978-91-87876-17-2. Published by Gothenburg University.


Jörgen Winkel, contact person

Bernt Schiller, Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg

Kasper Edwards, Department of Management Engineering, Technical University of Denmark

Rolf Westgaard, Div. Industrial Economics & Technology Management, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim