Recent developments in work–life balance in Finland
The European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS), carried out by Eurofound every four years, explores a variety of aspects related to living standards, health, family and work–life balance, as well as people's happiness levels, satisfaction with their lives, and their perceptions regarding the quality of their society.
The latest survey results for Finland paint a generally positive picture of the country in 2016, just a year before the country’s 100th anniversary of its independence. Finland came out on top of the 28 EU Member States on several indicators: happiness, optimism about children’s future and the quality of education, to mention just a few. This no doubt reflects the fact that the economic and social development of Finland during the 20th century has led to an exceptionally high quality of life in this Nordic country – a cause for celebrations, indeed.
However, the EQLS 2016 results regarding work–life balance reveal that combining life and work in Finland today is proving quite challenging – and the findings are especially worrying for women and people in the lowest income quartile.
Downward trend in work–life balance
Work–life balance has declined during the last decade in Finland, based on the three specific indicators of the EQLS. One in two respondents (50%) was too tired from work to do household jobs at least several times a month, an increase of 8 percentage points since 2003. Additionally, 26% of respondents had difficulties in fulfilling family responsibilities because of work (increase of 11 points from 2003). The least common work–life balance issue, ‘difficulties to concentrate at work because of family responsibilities’, has also more than doubled in a decade: while in 2003 only 6% of respondents in Finland experienced this problem, in 2016 the share was 16%.
As Table 1 illustrates, work–life balance in Finland is continuously better than the EU28 average, albeit following a similar negative pattern. Compared to the other Nordic countries which are included to the EQLS – Sweden and Denmark – work–life balance related problems are more frequent in Finland. Work–life balance remained fairly stable in Sweden between 2011 and 2016 while in Denmark it deteriorated in a similar way to Finland between 2011 and 2016.
Table 1: Work-life balance problems in Finland and the EU28
Source: European Quality of Life Survey, Data visualisation: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/data/european-quality-of-life-survey
Gender divergence puts women at a disadvantage
The breakdowns by gender, illustrated in Figure 1, show that the most pronounced decline in work–life balance has been experienced by women. Moreover, the changes over the last decade show that work–life balance issues are increasingly becoming a women’s problem in Finland: while in 2003 more men had problems combining their working and private lives, in 2016 women are the ones struggling in this area. However, at EU level, the diverging work–life balance trend between genders is not as pronounced. Additionally, it appears while that the work–life balance problems of women in Finland are declining towards the EU28 average, this trend is not as pronounced for men.
Figure 1: Work–life balance problems in Finland and the EU28, by gender
Share of respondents reporting problems (at least several times a month) (%).
Gender differences in work–life balance problems can be partially explained by the uneven distribution of care and household duties. While 86% of women in Finland carry out household chores every day, the corresponding share of men is 57% (the EU28 averages for women and men are 79% and 34%, respectively). Also, 39% of women in Finland take care of children at least once a week, compared to 35% of men (the EU28 figures are 40% and 32%). Caring for disabled or ill relatives or friends is also unevenly distributed between genders, with 26% of women and 20% of men in Finland providing this kind of care at least once a week (20% and 15% in the EU28). In light of these distributional differences in care responsibilities and household duties, the currently debated family leave reform would be a crucial factor in balancing some of these gender gaps and enabling fathers to spend more time in caring for their children.
Workers at the bottom of the income scale fare worse
Another group which stands out in terms of declining work–life balance in Finland are the people in the lowest income quartile. The share of respondents in the lowest income quartile reporting being ‘too tired from work to do household jobs’ at least several times a month increased by 11 percentage points from 2011, totalling 56% in 2016. However, this indicator remained fairly stable for the highest income quartile, at 46% in 2016 and 45% in 2011. Similarly, the proportion of people in the lowest income quartile reporting difficulties in fulfilling family responsibilities because of work rose by 16 percentage points from 2011, totalling 32% in 2016. The corresponding share of people in the highest income quartile is 19% in 2016 and 15% in 2011. The figures show that the work–life balance of the lowest income quartile deteriorated faster in Finland than on average in the EU, while the developments in the highest income quartile in Finland followed a similar, less pronounced decline as the respective EU average. However, for all the income quartiles, the work–life balance in Finland is still better than in the same category in the EU on average.
Table 2: Work–life balance problems in Finland, by income quartile
The recent policy debate related to work–life balance in Finland has been influenced by childcare and family leave reforms. A new regulation in 2016 limited the right to childcare to 20 hours a week for parents who are not in full-time employment (for instance, for part-time and irregular workers). This has been accompanied by the government decision to increase the group sizes in kindergartens, potentially affecting the access to and quality of childcare services. On the other hand, a reform of early childhood education has been proposed, which would increase the educational requirements for staff in kindergartens and improve the overall quality of childcare services. In addition, the current government’s move to reform the family leave provisions [perhevapaauudistus] is aimed at increasing gender equality – specifically by extending paternity leave and increasing the employment of mothers with small children. However, the government has been unable to come to an agreement regarding the family leave reform.
Further evidence of the downward impact of reform on workers’ lives, according to a Eurofound article, is the 2016 tripartite Competitiveness Pact [kilpailukykysopimus], affecting approximately 85% of the workforce in Finland and involving ‘a nationally and internationally exceptional deterioration of workers’ terms and conditions’. The pact has reduced the unit labour costs in Finland, including a wage freeze for 2017, pay cuts for public sector employees and an extension of annual working time.
Tackling the issues
The findings from the European Quality of Life Survey 2016 point to several dimensions where potentially negative trends are emerging – especially for women and people with low income. Given that recent policy developments in Finland can potentially affect people’s work–life balance, it is important for policymakers to pay attention to the quality of life of all workers. For instance, the access to and quality of childcare services, as well as the planned reform on family leave policies, can impact on the work–life balance of families in Finland. Furthermore, more research needs to be carried out into the recent deterioration in the work–life balance of people in the lowest income quartile, in order to find the reasons and develop adequate policy actions.
It is clear that at national level, further exploration should be undertaken in many countries affected by the decline in work–life balance, as revealed by the European Quality of Life Survey. For instance, changing household structures and family life can potentially influence the findings, along with growing awareness about the importance of work–life balance for everybody’s quality of life.