Better exchange of information needed in multicultural workplaces

During the last couple of decades, Finland has been transformed from a country of emigration to one of immigration, even though the proportion of immigrants is still very low in the population, at 2.2%. Nevertheless, more Finnish employees now have colleagues with an immigrant background. A recent study on multicultural workplaces shows that the situations of immigrant and Finnish employees are similar to a certain extent. However, there are clear differences in relation to some employment aspects.

A recent study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) focuses on a relatively new issue in Finnish working life, namely multicultural workplaces. Although the proportion of immigrants is still very low in the population, at 2.2%, more employees are encountering greater numbers of foreign nationals as colleagues in the workplace.

A total of 208 employees with an immigrant background as well as 600 of their Finnish colleagues responded to a questionnaire survey, constituting a response rate of 52%. The respondents came from 36 different countries and worked at 17 public and private sector workplaces in the Helsinki region. The majority of those surveyed worked in the transport, health and social work, or education sectors. In addition, some 22 qualitative interviews were conducted among immigrants on their job-seeking experiences, as well as a further nine interviews among staff in personnel management and 14 interviews with employees working in occupational healthcare units.


Overall, two thirds of immigrant workers felt that they had been treated well when applying for a job in Finland, while 7% had clearly negative experiences – especially those from northeast Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The recruiters considered immigrants as loyal, motivated and customer-oriented employees and regarded them as a positive resource for their organisation.

Both the immigrants and the employers highlighted Finnish language skills as a significant factor in enhancing immigrants’ employability; both parties also perceived negative attitudes at the workplace as the main obstacle hindering recruitment.

Job demands

While only 5% of Finnish respondents perceived that their job did not correspond with their education, this was true for 12% of immigrants. Some two thirds of the immigrants considered that their knowledge of the Finnish language was fairly good; the longer they had stayed in Finland, the better they assessed their language skills. The vast majority – even among those who had lived for over 15 years in the country – were eager to improve their Finnish language skills. At the same time, only one in three of Finnish employees felt that the language skills of their immigrant colleagues were sufficient for their work.

Immigrant respondents regarded their work as being monotonous more often than Finnish employees did and they also felt that they had less control over work issues. On the other hand, they cited less time pressure and found their work physically less strenuous than their Finnish counterparts did. Most of the immigrant respondents considered that they had been well trained for their job and for safe working methods, even somewhat more frequently than Finnish employees. A considerable share of immigrant employees had irregular working hours or worked shifts, which they regarded as a source of stress.

Social relations and bullying

The majority of the respondents perceived the relations between immigrant and Finnish employees as favourable, but the relationships between employees from the same country of origin were viewed as the most positive. Nevertheless, clear variations emerged in the experiences of different nationalities: those from Sub-Saharan Africa and northeast Africa encountered more bullying and felt that they worked in more socially isolated conditions than others.

Altogether, 18% of immigrants, compared with 10% of Finnish employees, felt bullied at their workplace. Conversely, while 38% of Finns reported inappropriate or insulting behaviour from their customers, patients or pupils at times, only 27% of immigrants reported this situation.

Use of occupational healthcare services

The immigrant respondents had not used the occupational healthcare services of their workplace as often as their Finnish colleagues had. Furthermore, the immigrants found it difficult to describe their problems to occupational healthcare staff more often (16%) than the Finns did (6%).

The interviews with healthcare staff showed that multicultural issues had not been fully taken into account in the occupational healthcare service units, neither in their own actions nor in the planning of their operations. Even though the healthcare workers regarded their immigrant clients as an enriching and interesting challenge in their work, they had encountered major difficulties due to lack of a common language.

Practical recommendations

One of the aims of the study was to put research results into practice. Therefore, the report also includes numerous recommendations and suggestions for occupational healthcare services as well as for the recruiters, supervisors and work communities at multicultural workplaces.

The study emphasises the importance of sufficient exchange of information, training and communication, as well as a common set of rules for issues that would seldom have arisen before the arrival of the first immigrant employees. Workplaces should ensure that the information necessary for work is understood by all and, if necessary, provide translations, support and even a list of the most important vocabulary needed in the work. Although special support for immigrant workers in the organisation is important – particularly at the beginning of their working careers –equality should not be forgotten with regard to Finnish employees either.


Bergbom, B., Giorgiani, T., Riala, R., Rintala-Rasmus, A., Salminen, S. and Vartia, M., Monikulttuurisuus työn arjessa (in Finnish, to buy) [Multiculturalism in everyday working life], Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and Ministry of Labour, Tampere, 2007.

Hanna Sutela, Statistics Finland

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