Finland: Working Life Barometer 2013

The Finnish Working Life Barometer is a survey of working conditions from the perspective of employees, conducted annually by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy since 1992. The focus of this article is the 2013 Barometer, offering a summary of the main findings and an overview of the current issues.

Introduction

This article examines key trends in Finnish working life as revealed by the Finnish Working Life Barometer 2013It provides information about different aspects of working life, such as: organisation of work; different time and wage arrangements; opportunities for professional development; health; and discrimination and violence in the workplace. Additionally, it focuses on changes in the employment situation and the financial situation of workplaces.

In terms of the context of the survey, the key issue is the recession in Finland since 2008. Finland's gross domestic product (GDP) dropped significantly in 2009. Although this was followed by two years of weak growth, the economy declined during 2012 and 2013.

Another significant trend to note in terms of the survey findings is structural change in Finland. This is particularly important in manufacturing where 100,000 jobs were lost between 2004 and 2013. The findings reveal that lay-offs have increased and respondents’ confidence in being able to find new employment if they lose their job has declined. The Barometer also cites the increase in flexible working hours and remote work as positive trends. And it records increases in perceptions of fair treatment and openness at the workplace and the opportunity to learn new things.

The Barometer shows that the re-distribution of tasks and the introduction of new working methods and systems are important features of Finnish working life. Factors that have created pressure for change include new technology, changing markets and the more diverse wishes, needs and skills of employees.

General changes include an increasingly pessimistic perspective about the meaningfulness of work. In addition, an index that measures perceptions of key elements of well-being in the workplace shows that improvement in these areas has been slow overall among wage-earners over the past 10 years. 

Methodology

The Working Life Barometer focuses on working life from the perspective of wage-earners in Finland. The Barometer distinguishes between four sectors: industrial, private service, government and municipal. Published annually by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, it is based on data collected annually through phone interviews by Statistics Finland in conjunction with its labour force survey. Respondents were interviewed in August and September 2013 – some 1,755 in all. The data can be considered representative of the entire population of wage-earners in Finland in all sectors (in Finnish, 463 KB PDF), with the exception of government employees and those aged under 25 years due to the low number of respondents in these groups. 

Positive trends

Two major positive trends were observed in 2013.

  • Flexible working hours and remote work are becoming more common.
  • Fair treatment and openness at the workplace continue to develop positively.

Benefits of remote and flexible working

A number of benefits can stem from flexible working (in Finnish, 6.2 MB PDF).

  • Flexible working hours can help to maintain work–life balance and overall well-being.
  • Flexibility can be linked to the possibility of prolonging people’s careers, particularly when it is based on the need of employees rather than employers.

The Barometer makes reference to a report on remote working based on a review of scientific literature and an employee survey on the topic by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. The report argues that remote work should be widely implemented (in Finnish, 2.1 MB PDF) in companies and organisations. If implemented properly and with due care, the report argues, remote work offers benefits to both employers and employees.

  • For employees, benefits can include better psychological and physical endurance at work, greater motivation, more flexible working hours and less commuting.
  • Remote work can make balancing work and family life easier, and can facilitate less costly and more convenient living arrangements.
  • For employers, these factors may contribute to greater productivity.
  • In general, remote work can also contribute to ecological sustainability, lowering emissions from commuter traffic.

Increase in flexible and remote working

The Barometer found that while weekly working hours have only fluctuated very slightly in the past 20 years, flexible working hours are increasingly common: in 2006, flexible hours were available to 60% of wage-earners while In 2012–2013, they were available to 70%.

About 60% of wage-earners have the opportunity to use flexibility to take whole days off, 10% work remotely at least once a week, while 6% work remotely at least once a month. Flexible working hours and remote work are most common among managerial employees. In the municipal and industrial sectors, remote work is rare. It is more common in private services sectors and the government sector.

Research suggests that reasons for the increase in flexible working hours and remote work are, at least in part, similar. The main factor is information and communications technology, which makes remote work possible (in Finnish, 1.1 MB PDF). The increase in flexibility is also associated with a shift from industrial work to services work – especially knowledge-based services. To function effectively, flexibility requires an organisational culture that is based on trust. 

Workers report more fair treatment and openness

Fair treatment and openness at the workplace developed positively in the 2000s: in 2013, 71% of wage-earners agreed fully or partly that information and knowledge are shared openly at their workplaces. The findings suggest that most wage-earners are quite content with their treatment by management, with 80% of wage-earners agreeing that employees are treated fairly (in Finnish, 463 KB PDF) and that management asks for their opinions on the decisions that affect them.

Negative trends

The effects of the recession since 2008 are visible in recent findings from the Barometer which shows that wage-earners have an increasingly negative outlook about their employment situation, the financial situation in their workplaces and their chances of finding a new job if they were to become unemployed.

Impact of the recession

While working conditions are affected by many different factors, since 2008 the recession's effects on Finland have contributed to the negative developments registered by the Barometer. A 2014 report from the Prime Minister's office showed that, at the end of 2008 and in 2009, Finland's GDP declined significantly – by up to 9% (in Finnish, 2.5 MB PDF). However, Finland differs from many other European countries in that its GDP has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels. This suggests that uncertainties in the labour market have persisted. In Finland, there was only modest economic growth in 2010–2011 and a decline during 2012–2013 (in Finnish, 204 KB PDF).

Some experts argue that the decline is due to a dramatic drop in manufacturing's share of the economy. More specifically, there have been problems in the forestry and electronics industries. The electronics industry is exemplified by the problems of one company – Nokia  which has historically been important for the Finnish economy. In the survey findings, these problems are reflected in higher rates of permanent and temporary lay-offs in the electronics industry than in all other sectors. Overall, Finland has lost 100,000 industrial jobs in 10 years. The disappearance of industrial jobs is reflected in the unemployment figures: according to Statistics Finland, overall unemployment in July 2014 was 7%, whereas in July 2008 it was 5.2%.

Pessimism regarding financial situation

The pessimism prevalent among wage-earners since 2011 continues. Respondents to the survey were asked whether they thought the situation would be better or worse a year from now. Their answers were used to calculate a balance measure, giving an agglomerated figure that reflects respondents’ expectations. (For a balance measure, the number of negative replies is subtracted from the number of positive replies; if all replies are positive, the balance will be +100% and, if all replies are negative, the balance will be -100%. Neutral replies are not included.)

The balance was still positive in 2010 at 35%. Surveys in 2011 and 2012 produced the most negative measures of -31% and -36% respectively.  There was a slight improvement in 2013, although the balance was still negative at -19%. The balance measure describing respondents' perceptions of the financial situation of their own workplaces has been negative since 2008, except for 2010 when it was +16%. In 2013, the Barometer recorded a negative balance of -15%. The proportion of wage-earners expecting negative changes in their workplace's financial situation is higher in the public sector than it is in the private sector. For government and municipality employees, the balance was -50% and -58% respectively. The industrial and service sectors, however, show a tendency towards positive change, at 14% and 3% respectively.

Fear of being laid off or not finding another job

The effects of the recession are visible in the changes in the numbers of jobs at respondents' workplaces and their fears of being laid off. In 2013, some 53% of respondents said that the number of employees at their workplace had remained the same, while 26% reported that jobs had been cut. This is an improvement over 2009, when 36% of respondents reported lay-offs in their workplaces. The manufacturing sector was most affected by the recession with an above-average share of job cuts – 29% in 2013. However, this again reflects an improvement over 2009, when 52% of respondents from the manufacturing sector reported that jobs had been cut. In the public sector, 41% of respondents in government employment reported that jobs had been cut (in Finnish, 463 KB PDF).

In 2013, some 10% of wage-earners felt that they could be laid off permanently within a year, while 21% felt that they could be laid off temporarily. Again, these numbers are down from the equivalent figures at the height of the recession in 2009 – 11% and 26% respectively. Figures for both projections in 2013 were at their highest in the industrial sector – 13% and 36% respectively.

Asked whether they thought they could find other work if they become unemployed, 73% of wage-earners felt that they would be able to find new employment that corresponded to their job skills; those aged under 35 years were the most optimistic (90%) while those aged over 55 were the least optimistic (47%).

Changes in Finnish working life

Organisational changes are underway in Finnish working life, including the redistribution of tasks and the introduction of new working methods and systems. Wage-earners' views on some changes in working life are becoming increasingly pessimistic and the pace of improvment in working life overall is slow.

Prevalence of organisational change

Eurofound's third European Company Survey (ECS) found that workplaces in Finland were among the most likely to have undergone organisational change, 46% doing so. Only in Denmark (60%) and Sweden (56%) was organisational change more widespread.

Overall, in the Working Life Barometer 2013, 57% reported that tasks at their workplace had been redistributed (in Finnish, 463 KB PDF). However, in workplaces with over 200 employees, 80% said that tasks had been redistributed. The introduction of new methods or systems was reported by 56% of all respondents and by 70% of public sector respondents. In workplaces where tasks had been redistributed and new working methods and systems had been introduced, 70% reported that they worked at a fast pace. Among respondents in workplaces where these changes have not taken place, 60% reported that they worked at a fast pace.

Younger people more optimistic

Respondents were asked if the meaningfulness of work and job enthusiasm were developing positively, negatively or would remain the same. The Barometer points out that the perceived meaningfulness of work can be influenced by a range of factors (in Finnish, 6.2 MB PDF) that includes individual positive and negative experiences of work, media reports about changes in working life, and a general feeling of insecurity. Since 2001, the balance of positive and negative replies has been negative. In 2013, the balance was -18%: some 32% of respondents stated that the meaningfulness of work and job enthusiasm were developing negatively, while 14% felt they were developing positively (it should be noted that the balance measurement does not take neutral responses into account). Meanwhile, 47% of respondents felt that the situation would stay the same. The younger the respondents, the more optimistic was their outlook. There were no major differences between sectors. Respondents who have little influence on their tasks and who work at a fast pace tended to evaluate the development of meaningfulness at their work more negatively.

Improvements slow to materialise

Improvements in working life for wage-earners overall are happening only slowly, according to an index that takes into account job security, fair treatment, encouragement, innovativeness, trust in colleagues, and the physical and psychological resources of employees. Over the past 10 years, the biggest change has been in perceptions of job security, which is now deemed weaker than it was in 2009.

Commentary

One of the main findings from the Finnish Working Life Barometer 2013 is that employees’ expectations regarding their employment prospects and the financial situation of their workplace are negative for the third year in a row. This is in line with what has happened in the economy. (Interestingly, public-sector employees feel more insecure about their workplaces than do those in the private sector.)

Public commentators have paid attention to issues affecting the quality of working life. The Centre for Occupational Safety (TTK) has emphasised that more efforts have been made to improve 'ability' and safety in Finnish working life (in Finnish).  'Ability' in this context describes all the factors that make it possible for employees to work and so covers covers health issues, including sustainable work intensity. The Labour Minister Lauri Ihalainen is quoted by TTK as saying that the results of the Barometer are in line with the goals of the Finnish government's Work–Life 2020 strategy in Finnish), which aims to make Finnish working life the best in Europe. When it comes to health and safety issues, there has been progress, especially among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are catching up with working conditions in bigger companies. TTK points out that there is work to be done, however, because although the possibility of participating in the design and implementation of changes at the workplace has improved, only half of the Barometer's respondents reported having had this opportunity.

The Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors (JHL) found both negative and positive developments in working conditions in the municipality sector (in Finnish). JHL focused on the fact that employees in the municipality sector did not feel secure about their jobs. However, it also pointed out that 67% of municipal employees said they had participated in training or education whereas the figure had been only 52% ten years earlier. JHL agrees that tight schedules are a problem in the municipal sector due to funding cuts, this being one of the ways in which the economic situation has impacted on the quality of working life.

From a research perspective, the value of the Barometer is that it has been conducted annually for more than two decades, creating a good basis for understanding changes in Finnish working life and its context, and making it possible to understand how economic, cultural and even technological changes have affected working life.

 

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