EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Quality in work and employment— Finland

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  • Observatory: EurWORK
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  • Published on: 28 June 2007

Anna-Maija Lehto

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Quality of work and employment is back at the top of the European employment and social policy agenda. At the first Informal meeting of Ministers for Employment and Social Affairs held under the German Presidency on 18/20 January 2007 in Berlin, agreement was reached on a set of policy principles covering what the Presidency termed ‘good work’ – a new EU terminology following on from the ILO use of ‘decent work, and the more established EU mantra of ‘more and better jobs’.This is the contribution ofFinland.

1. The importance of quality in work and employment

The concepts of “quality in work” or “quality of employment” or “quality of work(ing) life” have been much-used expressions in Finnish labour market debate since the 1980s and 1990s. A Government committee was established in 1989 to evaluate the state of Finnish working conditions. It financed an extensive survey (The Quality of Work Life Survey) concerning working conditions which was conducted by Statistics Finland and which, at the same time, continued the series of working conditions surveys.

This was the first time in Finland when the concept of Quality of Work Life was used. The concept had its origin in the Quality of Work Life movement (with “good work” criteria) established in the USA, Canada and some Western European countries already in the 1970s. Simultaneously, so called socio-technical methods for the development of work organisation were getting widespread in the Nordic Countries. Both of these movements were more “employee-oriented” than was the case later, in the 1990s, when the ideas of “high performance organisations” and “productivity of work” were more in focus and the concept “quality of work” was forgotten.

Later, when the “Quality of Work” debate started in the European Union, it also resumed in Finland. Finland joined the EU in 1995 and after that, the national action plans for employment and national reform programmes - which are expected to be done in all EU countries - included the concepts of “quality in work and employment” (first in the pillar of “adaptability of businesses and their employees”). One problem in the national action plans has been that questions on quality of work and employment have to a great extent been left to social partners to discuss and make initiatives about. Very often, these are difficult matters for finding a compromise, like matters on flexible use of labour, pay differentials or working time arrangements.

On the other hand, during the past decade Finland has succeeded in implementing centralised labour market agreements, which have included many “quality” matters besides pay levels. In joint working groups, social partners have discussed gender equality, working hours, occupational health and safety and security of labour contracts, etc. In this sense, “quality” matters have been increasingly on the agenda in Finland.

Conflict between job creation and the pursuit of quality in work?

There has also been a lot of discussion in Finland about policies for increasing job opportunities in the lowest paid or “low-productivity” sectors, such as services in general: cleaning, retail trade, hotels and restaurants, and home services. “To boost the demand for low-wage jobs by reducing indirect labour costs” was also mentioned in the Government’s programme of 14 April 2003. In August 2004, however, the Government considered that the proposed model (subsidies for employers) was too expensive for the State and that it should be assessed further. As a result of the dispute it was decided that from the beginning 2006 employers only get subsidies for employees aged over 55 in low-paid jobs.

Even the term “low-productivity” is rather alarming in the Finnish context. It is reminiscent of the American term “working poor” which in the Finnish context is often regarded as something that should not be increased as a group. The Finns have been quite successful in avoiding big income differentials. (Peña-Casas & Latta 2004). The debate about this initiative has raised objections, and warnings not to build a big working poor population in Finland, too. On the contrary, the aim has been to develop jobs both in terms of their content and pay as much as possible in order to avoid the kinds of job profiles that contain no development opportunities.

National debate being influenced by policy discussions at EU level?

European discussion has had a major influence on how much the concept of Quality of Work has been used in policy discussions. Especially National Action Plans for Employment and National Reform Programmes for Employment have been intertwined with the concept.

On the other hand, especially the European Employment Taskforce which published the report Job, Jobs, Jobs (2003) strongly emphasised flexible use of labour and creation of more low-paid jobs, like part-time work, fixed-term work and temporary agency work. This was taken in Finland as a recommendation to create more low-paid jobs and a proposition was made of subsidies for employers for this purpose.

During the Finnish Presidency in 2006, the Employment Committee of the EU (EMCO) dealt with the question of job quality and productivity. It was found out that there was a positive correlation between the share of high-quality jobs and productivity: e.g. labour productivity is significantly above average in sectors that offer above average job quality (Enhancing higher productivity …. 2006).

Aspects of job quality seen as especially important?

When speaking about job quality, the most important aspects in the Finnish debate have been matters concerned with drawing the lines for basic conditions like job security, the level of pay, sufficient working hours.

As far as the question of lengthening working careers is concerned, many health-related matters have also been considered important relative to the concept of job quality: occupational health and safety in the sense of fewer accidents, healthier working conditions in general, positive flexibility of working hours, etc.

The term meaningful work has also been often used in Finnish research discussion. Likewise, quality of jobs is often understood in connection with productivity of work.

Major initiatives

There are several initiatives and programmes which have been established by government authorities or social partners:

- The Workplace Development Programme (Tykes, in the Ministry of Labour) launched at the beginning of 2004 is designed to bring together the experiences gained from earlier working life programmes.

- “Veto” Programme (2003-2007, headed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health), a national programme for increasing the attraction of working life.

- “Kesto” Programme (2004-2007, headed by the Institute of Occupational Health), an action programme for the lengthening of working careers and increasing the attraction of working life.

- The National “Age” Programme 1998-2002, aimed at keeping ageing workers longer in working life. This Programme attracted much positive attention in the EU.

2. Career and employment security

Concept of ‘flexicurity’ in the national debate?

There is continuous discussion about making the labour market more flexible by increasing low-paid jobs and pushing the unemployed to accept any kind of job instead of unemployment. This discussion comes close to interpretations of the concept “flexicurity” in contemporary Finland. There are opinions which prefer talking about “employment security” instead of “job security”. The former means more like the Danish or Dutch model of labour market policies where all flexibility is supported if, at the same time, it is easy to find a new job. This kind of an idea can be especially dangerous for female employees, because they have been the main targets of flexible use of labour.

Employment contracts

Insecure employment relationships, and especially the large proportion of fixed-term employment by international comparison, have become the dominating problem among the female labour force in Finland in the past few decades. According to the European Labour Force Survey, 21.8 per cent of employed women had fixed-term jobs in Finland in 2005 (2nd quarter), whereas the corresponding average in the EU25 was 14.7 per cent. The respective proportions among men were 14.4 per cent in Finland and 13.8 per cent in the EU. There are only three countries in Europe, Spain, Poland and Portugal, with more fixed-term employees among women than in Finland. This employment relationship problem has persisted in Finland despite the fact that the Employment Contracts Act has specifically striven to forbid unjustified use of sequential, fixed-term employment contracts. Additionally, the Government has stated in its programme (2003) that fixed-term contracts should be changed to permanent ones especially in the public sector. Public sector institutions have been issued instructions for implementing this, but statistics on fixed-term employment show no reductions. In 2005, these figures are high again after a small decline in 2004. (Lehto et al. 2005.)

In Finland, fixed-term employment concentrates more than on the average on the female and on the well-educated labour force. The data from Statistics Finland’s Quality of Work Life Surveys allow fixed-term employment to be divided into two categories: conventional and modern. Fixed-term employment relationships have traditionally been used for seasonal or piecework jobs. By contrast, modern fixed-term employment contracts are used for jobs and tasks that do not require them by nature.

Fixed-term employment is seen as being associated with many difficulties in all sectors: lack of commitment to work causes problems to the employer and in the work community, while to the employees themselves it causes continuous uncertainty. However, the use of fixed-term contracts is sustained by the desire to avoid dismissals and codetermination negotiations, and financial uncertainty at the level of the organisation in general. The feeling that the tightened legislation has lead to increased use of agency workers instead of fixed-term contracts is gaining ground at workplaces. Agency workers are used more and more especially in the private sector to level out workloads at peak periods or even to recruit new permanent employees. However, the use of agency workers has its own, new problems arising from two parallel employers, high turnover and lack of commitment.

3. Health and well-being

Move towards increased employment in services

It has been quite widely recognised that together with the structural change in the labour force the focus of problems in working conditions has changed, too. In addition to the continuous work with safety matters, numerous programmes have dealt with non-manual work, matters concerning the organisation of work, psycho-social aspects of work, etc. Jointly with other ministries, the Ministry of Labour has organised several development programmes at the work-organisation level (TYKES 1 and 2, Productivity programmes etc). At the moment, the EU Directive on stress at work is under tri-partite consideration among ministries and labour market organisations.

According to the Quality of Work Life Surveys, it has been obvious that the psycho-social aspects of work have become more problematic during the last 20 years. Especially time pressure, insecurity in jobs and problems in social relationships have become more common. These changes correlate with the change from manual to non-manual work and with ever increasing productivity demands and reductions of staff in the public sector.

The health of older workers

The health of older workers has been in the focus of measures since the beginning of the 1990s. Finland has been among the first countries in Europe to have special programmes aimed at postponing the effective retirement age. There have been two major age programmes directed towards employers for the purpose of lengthening working careers. New ways of organising work, so-called age-management and different rehabilitation measures have been developed. In addition, new pension legislation has been effective since the beginning of 2005. All these measures, together with an ever increasing educational level, have made it easier for employees to stay longer in employment. The employment rate has risen faster among the 55-64-year-olds in Finland than in the rest of the EU, over 10 percentage points since 2000.

Working conditions of men and women

Differentials in work-related health problems among men and women have been one of the aspects which especially equality bodies and researchers have emphasised during the last 20 years in Finland. This is also one of the aspects which the Quality of Work Life Survey has emphasised at least since the 1984 survey. Before that, working conditions and work-related problems were understood from the viewpoint of manufacturing work but the jobs typical for women were left outside the consideration. In Finland, women’s labour force participation has been much more common than elsewhere in the EU and they have also met more difficult working conditions earlier in the sense of time pressure, insecurity (much fixed-term employment), more discrimination and harassment, etc. In addition, women’s pay level has stayed at 80 per cent of men’s in spite of the fact that women’s educational level has for 15 years already been higher than men’s.

4. Skills development

Continuous structural change

A major structural change has taken place among the Finnish employed population during the past few decades. This concerns sectors, occupations and educational levels alike. The change in the occupational structure reflects clearly a decrease of manufacturing work and office work, while health, social care and teaching work have been increasing significantly. There has also been a change in socio-economic groups towards an increasing proportion of white-collar wage and salary earners. The change that has taken place in the educational structure has been phenomenal. In the time period during which Quality of Work Life Surveys have been conducted (1977-2003), the proportion of employees with no education beyond the basic level has decreased from 55 per cent to 18 per cent.

The Quality of Work Life Surveys show that perceptions about opportunities for development at work are highly positive. Finnish wage and salary earners also regard self-development at work considerably more important than ascent on the hierarchical ladder. The need for further development concentrates especially among those whose educational level is already high. Of them, 61 per cent regard self-development at work as very important, while the respective proportion among all employees is 48 per cent. Nevertheless, more than one in three (34%) of those with only basic level of education consider self-development at work as very important.

The eagerness to develop oneself in Finland is easy to see also in European statistics. The proportion of Finnish employees who have a tertiary level of education is 41 per cent, when in the EU25 the same average figure is only 27 per cent These statistics are from 2004 and concern 25-59-year-old employees.

Structural change and educational and training systems

There has been a continuous system for making forecasts about the demand of vocational education. The Ministry of Labour has produced several reports on the structural change and labour demand (Työvoima 2017, Työvoima 2020 and Työvoima 2025). These forecasts have made estimates about changes on the labour market while taking into account globalisation and technological change and their effects on labour demand. These calculations also contain analyses on retirement rates and numbers of new employees needed as a consequence. The Ministry of Education has increased especially training opportunities leading to technological, health care and social care qualifications. However, labour shortage in some occupations - like work in metal industry, construction, health care, etc. - is a theme often discussed in public. There is a special programme aimed at increasing the educational level of adults, the so-called Noste programme. The aim of the Noste programme is to raise the educational level among the adults (aged 30-59) who have completed no more than basic-level of education. The participants have taken courses leading to further vocational qualifications and trained for a computer driving licence.

5. Work-life balance

How far is this being achieved?

Reconciliation of work and private life entered Finnish public discourse especially in the 1990s. Since then more and more attention has been paid to this matter, mostly because of the problematic relationship between work life and family life.

The whole matter is somewhat different in Finland when compared with the general discussion in the European Union. In the EU, questions on reconciliation have mostly arisen because getting more women onto the labour market has been considered as an important target. This is why policies around children’s day care and family leaves have been the most essential ones relative to the reconciliation. In Finland, where women have participated in work outside the home for a long time already the discussion about reconciliation of work and family life does not solely concern parental leave and day care opportunities, even though these matters are also still topical. The focal point in the Finnish reconciliation discourse has been time budgeting, especially parents’ increasing difficulties in apportioning their time between paid work and the family.

Another question that has come up concerns the extent to which the well-developed system of family leaves causes new forms of discrimination against young women entering the labour market. Many share the opinion that the increased proportion of fixed-term employment among young, well educated women is to a certain extent a consequence of employers’ fear of the costs they might incur from motherhood.

In Finland, the foundation for the reconciliation of work and family life has been mostly laid down with social policy measures. The system of family leaves and allowances has been under construction since the 1960s: the maternity leave is 40 years old and men have had the right to paternity leave for over 25 years already. There is a municipal children’s day care system in Finland, and since the beginning of 1996 it has been the subjective right of all children under school age (age of 7) to get a place in publicly supported care, i.e. the municipalities must offer a full-time care-place if the parents ask for it.

As far back as in 1984, the Finnish Quality of Work Life Surveys not only studied normal, paid overtime work but also such stretching of working hours for which employees receive no separate compensation. This kind of flexibility in working hours has increased clearly among both women and men. What is more, the order of the genders has changed so that according to the latest survey women now do more of this type of overtime work than men.

This kind of overtime work has also been called voluntary overtime work. It is, however, questionable how voluntary it actually is. While the Quality of Work Life Surveys have studied time pressure, among other things, by using qualitative interviews, it has also been possible to examine the doing of this kind of voluntary overtime work and the reasons for it. (Järnefelt & Lehto 2002) The usual underlying reasons for this kind overtime work are growing productivity and efficiency requirements at workplaces. From an individual employee’s perspective overtime working becomes necessary because there is not enough time to do all the work during the normal day. In many fields, tasks requiring concentration, in particular, have to be left until after the working day because the actual working hours are filled by all kinds of other activities and continuous interruptions.

Anna-Maija Lehto, Statistics Finland


“Enhancing higher productivity and more and better jobs, including for people at the margins of the labour market” (2006) The Employment Committee. European Commission. EMCO/18/171006/EN-final.

Holm, Pasi and Vihriälä, Vesa (2002): Matalan tuottavuuden työn tuki. - Tarpeellinen keino työllisyyden parantamiseksi Suomessa. (Subsidies for low-productivity work - A useful means to improve employment in Finland, in Finnish). Pellervo Economic Research Institute. Working Papers No. 57.

Jobs, jobs, jobs (2003) Creating more employment in Europe. Report to the Employment Taskforce, headed by Wim Kok.

Järnefelt, Noora & Lehto, Anna-Maija: Työhulluja vai hulluja töitä? (Work crazy or crazy work?, in Finnish) Statistics Finland. Research Reports 25. Helsinki 2002.

Lehto, Anna-Maija & Lyly-Yrjänäinen, Maija & Sutela, Hanna (2005) Pysyvän työn toivossa. Määräaikaisten työsuhteiden käytöstä ja kokemisesta. (In the hope of a permanent job. About the use of fixed-term employment relationships and experiences of them, in Finnish). Ministry of Labour. Labour policy study 291.

Lehto, Anna-Maija & Sutela, Hanna (2005) Threats and opportunities. Findings of the Finnish Quality of Work Life Surveys 1977-2003. Statistics Finland 2005.

Palanko-Laaka, Kirsti (2005) Määräaikaisen työn yleisyys, käytön lainmukaisuus ja lainsäädännön kehittämistarpeet (The frequency of fixed-term employment, the legality of the use and the needs for developing legislation, in Finnish) Ministry of Labour. Labour administration publication 359/2005.

Peña-Casas Ramón & Latta, Mia (2004) Working Poor in the European Union. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions,

Quality of work and employment in Europe. Issues and challenges. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Foundation paper No.1, 2002.

Työvoima 2017 (Labour Force in 2017) Ministry of Labour. Labour policy study 200.

Työvoima 2020 (Labour Force in 2020) Ministry of Labour. Labour policy study 245.

Työvoima 2025 (Labour Force in 2025) Ministry of Labour. Labour policy study 289.

Annex – Country data

Place of work and work organisation EU27 FI
q11f. Working at company/organisation premises 72.8 88.2
q11g. Teleworking from home 8.3 13.0
q11j. Dealing directly with people who are not employees (e.g. customers) 62.4 73.9
q11k. Working with computers 45.5 62.0
q11l. Using internet/email for work 36.0 51.8
q20a_a. Short repetitive tasks of <1m 24.7 35.7
q20a_b. Short repetitive tasks of <10m 39.0 60.2
q20b_a. Working at very high speed 59.6 77.7
q20b_b. Working to tight deadlines 61.8 73.6
q21a. Pace of work dependent on colleagues 42.2 42.2
q21b. Pace of work dependent on direct demands from customers, etc. 68.0 74.2
q21c. Pace of work dependent on numerical production/performance targets 42.1 53.2
q21d. Pace of work dependent on automated equipment/machine 18.8 19.8
q21e. Pace of work dependent on boss 35.7 15.5
q22a. Have to interrupt a task in order to take on an unforeseen task 32.7 52.1
q24a. Can choose/change order of tasks 63.4 81.3
q24b. Can choose/change methods of work 66.9 72.6
q24c. Can choose/change speed of work 69.2 73.7
q25a. Can get assistance from colleagues if asked 67.6 84.3
q25b. Can get assistance from superiors/boss if asked 56.1 73.5
q25c. Can get external assistance if asked 31.6 41.5
q25d. Has influence over choice of working partners 24.2 27.0
q25e. Can take break when wishes 44.6 62.6
q25f. Has enough time to get the job done 69.6 67.9
q26a. Task rotation 43.7 44.5
q26b. Teamwork 55.2 71.5
q31. Immediate boss is a woman 24.5 39.0
Job content and training    
q23a. Meeting precise quality standards 74.2 78.4
q23b. Assessing quality of own work 71.8 75.6
q23c. Solving unforeseen problems 80.8 81.7
q23d. Monotonous tasks 42.9 48.0
q23e. Complex tasks 59.4 74.5
q23f. Learning new things 69.1 90.0
q25j. Able to apply own ideas in work 58.4 64.3
q27. Job-skills match: need more training 13.1 15.0
q27. Job-skills match: correspond well 52.3 62.6
q27. Job-skills match: could cope with more demanding duties 34.6 22.3
q28a1. Has undergone paid-for training in previous 12 months 26.1 52.6
Violence, harrassment and discrimination    
q29a. Threats of physical violence 6.0 12.5
q29b. Physical violence from colleagues 1.8 1.5
q29c. Physical violence from other people 4.3 7.1
q29d. Bullying/harassment 5.1 17.2
q29f. Unwanted sexual attention 1.8 2.1
q29g. Age discrimination 2.7 3.5
Physical work factors    
q10a. Vibrations 24.2 21.6
q10b. Noise 30.1 37.0
q10c. High temperatures 24.9 24.9
q10d. Low temperatures 22.0 25.9
q10e. Breathing in smoke, fumes, powder or dust, etc. 19.1 24.4
q10f. Breathing in vapours such as solvents and thinners 11.2 14.4
q10g. Handling chemical substances 14.5 23.3
q10h. Radiation 4.6 6.2
q10i. Tobacco smoke from other people 20.1 11.3
q10j. Infectious materials 9.2 15.8
q11a. Tiring or painful positions 45.5 45.2
q11b. Lifting or moving people 8.1 11.4
q11c. Carrying or moving heavy loads 35.0 38.5
q11d. Standing or walking 72.9 79.4
q11e. Repetitive hand or arm movements 62.3 79.6
q11m. Wearing personal protective clothing or equipment 34.0 42.5
Information and communication    
q30b. Consulted about changes in work organisation, etc. 47.1 71.8
q30c. Subject to regular formal assessment of performance 40.0 62.2
q12. Well-informed about health and safety risks 83.1 96.5
q32. Consider health or safety at risk because of work 28.6 24.3
q33. Work affects health 35.4 42.5
q33a_a… hearing problems 7.2 11.6
q33a_b... problems with vision 7.8 7.6
q33a_c... skin problems 6.6 10.7
q33a_d… backache 24.7 26.2
q33a_e… headaches 15.5 15.7
q33a_f… stomach ache 5.8 5.2
q33a_g… muscular pains 22.8 32.8
q33a_h… respiratory difficulties 4.7 6.9
q33a_i… heart disease 2.4 1.9
q33a_j...injury(ies) 9.7 8.4
q33a_k...stress 22.3 25.4
q33a_l...overall fatigue 22.5 21.5
q33a_m...sleeping problems 8.7 13.1
q33a_n...allergies 4.0 7.4
q33a_o...anxiety 7.8 6.6
q33a_p... Irritability 10.5 14.8
q35. Able to do same job when 60 58.2 65.2
q34a_d. Absent for health problems in previous year 22.9 44.7
q34b_ef. Average days health-related absence in previous year 4.6 8.5
Work and family life    
q18. Working hours fit family/social commitments well or very well 79.4 86.0
q19. Contacted about work outside normal working hours 22.1 44.2
ef4c. Caring for and educating your children every day for an hour or more 28.8 27.5
ef4d. Cooking and housework 46.4 50.2
Job satisfaction    
q36. Satisfied or very satisfied with working conditions 82.3 84.5
q37a_ef. I might lose my job in the next 6 months 13.7 13.3
q37b_ef. I am well paid for the work I do 43.2 35.5
q37c_ef. My job offers good prospects for career advancement 31.0 35.0
Structure of workforce    
q2d_ef. Seniority (mean years) 9.7 10.8
Working time    
q8a_ef. Mean usual weekly working hours 38.6 37.6
q8b. % usually working five days per week 65.1 81.4
q9a. % with more than one job 6.2 10.3
q13_ef. Daily commuting time (return, in minutes) 41.6 38.5
q14e_ef. Long working days 16.9 15.7
q16a_a. Work same number of hours each day 58.4 47.7
q16a_b. Work same number of days each week 74.0 71.1
q16a_c. Work fixed starting and finishing times 60.7 49.1
q16a_d. Work shifts 17.3 24.3
q17a. % with less flexible schedules 65.3 37.6
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