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Management that promotes work ability is good for business

In English


Work disability caused by mental health issues and musculoskeletal disorders costs billions of euros for Finland every year. High-quality management practices that promote ability to work can radically turn the trend of wellbeing at work.

Higher wellbeing and better skills make employees more productive for the company.

Poor wellbeing leads to increased sickness absences, disability pensions and other expenses, which impacts the company’s productivity.

In other words, ensuring the work ability of employees is good for business, even before the situation leads to sickness absences.

“Many companies have already included management that promotes ability to work in their strategies, because they see it as an integral part of profitable business,” says Kati Korhonen-Yrjänheikki, Chief Work Ability Officer at Elo Mutual Pension Insurance Company.

One day of illness costs between 300 and 400 euros for the company.

Wellbeing increases in companies that trust their employees, allow them to participate and take responsibility together. These aspects have been proven to improve the quality of work, customer satisfaction and profitability.

“Similarly, if employees feel psychologically unsafe, this has a negative effect on customer satisfaction and, consequently, productivity,” Korhonen-Yrjänheikki says.

Work disability affects both the individual employee and the daily life at the workplace. It also comes at a high price, as one day of illness costs between 300 and 400 euros for the company. At the level of society, this adds up to a hefty sum.

“If we combine all the expenses caused by deteriorated work ability, such as sickness absences, occupational health measures, rehabilitation and pension, the annual cost can be up to EUR 24 billion in Finland, according to some estimates,” Korhonen-Yrjänheikki notes.

Employees first, customers second

So how should companies manage work ability in order to keep their employees able to work for as long as possible?

At the minimum, they should set their priorities right and acknowledge the importance of employee wellbeing for the entire company. In practice, this means putting the employees before the customers.

“The purpose of companies is to serve their customers as well as possible, meeting their diverse needs and wishes. However, no matter how well a company wants to serve its customers, the wellbeing of employees should always come first,” Korhonen-Yrjänheikki points out.

“Consistent, high-quality customer service can only be achieved over the long term when the employees are healthy and happy.

Employees should be encouraged to take care of their own recovery.

Furthermore, the company management should identify the daily risks and challenges facing the employees. Factors that reduce work ability and resources that improve it vary by sector.

Demanding specialist work is undergoing a major transformation, as many routine tasks are nowadays performed by technology and employees focus on creative problem-solving. Korhonen-Yrjänheikki talks about brain ergonomics and the importance of learning as elements of work ability.

“Employees should be encouraged to take care of their own recovery, also during the workday, so that their brain does not become overburdened. They must be taught how to use the new software and tools. Various learning difficulties, which are becoming more and more common, must also be taken into account to ensure smooth work,” Korhonen-Yrjänheikki lists.

New role before work disability pension

Those with a physical job typically suffer from musculoskeletal disorders towards the end of their career, and sometimes, their work morale is too good for their health.

“The elderly tend to be highly committed, which is great, but if an employee performs tasks that are too heavy for their current state of fitness, it can lead to multiple sickness absences and even disability,” Korhonen-Yrjänheikki warns.

Reduced ability to work should be recognised well before the employee’s knees break down or their back hurts so much they are forced to stay in bed, even if the employee does not address the problems themselves.

Supervisors are responsible for finding out how their employees are doing and addressing even difficult topics at an early stage.

Instead of applying for disability pension right away, the employee’s job description can be modified or they can be offered a new role – the extensive experience of an elderly employee could certainly benefit the company in roles that are not as physically demanding.

Supervisors are responsible for finding out how their employees are doing and addressing even difficult topics at an early stage. For this, they need guidance and support from their supervisors or the company’s HR management. Occupational health and pension insurance companies can also provide valuable expertise.

“Intervening in, for example, the use of intoxicants in specialist work or bringing up the unhealthy overweight of an employee with a physically demanding role may feel difficult, but it is important to address these issues, nonetheless,” Korhonen-Yrjänheikki says.

Promoting ability to work in remote work

More and more employees choose remote work or hybrid work – i.e., the combination of remote and in-person work – if it suits their duties. Remote work makes life more flexible, allowing people to spend the time and energy freed from commuting on other things.

“However, remote work that relies on technology and connections involves many stress factors, such as its intense nature, insufficient breaks and isolation,” says Mirkka Vuorento, Researcher at Finnish Institute of Occupational Health who has studied work ability management in remote work.

She encourages organisations to pay particular attention to management that promotes work ability in remote work and managerial tasks. A good example of the new stress factors of remote work is having multiple meetings in a row. The ways in which these are typically organised require careful reconsideration.

“At the office, people walk together to meetings, which means there is automatically a social element and breaks that support ability to work. Successive meetings on Teams can be highly stressful for remote employees, because remote meetings can be scheduled for the entire workday without any breaks,” Vuorento explains.

The management can also tell the employees that it is acceptable to go jogging or to the gym in the middle of the workday.

However, organisations can support the work ability and health habits of employees in a number of ways, also in remote work. They can instruct employees to take breaks and recommend walking meetings.

“The management can also tell the employees that it is acceptable to go jogging or to the gym in the middle of the workday, because in remote work, employees do not benefit from the physical exercise they get when they travel to work. These things require commonly agreed rules and policies, but also the management’s example,” Vuorento points out.

In addition, companies should support ergonomics in remote work and, for example, support home visits by occupational physical therapists. Occupational health experts can also share their expertise on topics such as nutrition and sleep.

Micro-enterprises promote work ability together

The discussion above mainly applies to large companies with a management team, HR unit and resources for developing and implementing management practices that promote work ability.

However, the majority of Finnish companies are so-called micro-enterprises with fewer than ten employees. Some of these micro-enterprises work like larger companies, but often, their work ability management is based on informal day-to-day practices.

“Micro-enterprises rarely talk about work ability management, but they implement good practices flexibly. Interaction between people and doing things together generally work well at micro-enterprises,” says Susanna Visuri, Researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, who has studied work ability management at micro-enterprises.

Promoting work ability is often a joint effort of the entire personnel at micro-enterprises.

According to Visuri, promoting work ability is often a joint effort of the entire personnel at micro-enterprises. Entrepreneurs trust their staff, things are agreed upon orally, and challenges are reacted to, if needed.

“Even if the organisation has not separately agreed upon intervention practices related to work ability, employees notice if a colleague has, for example, poor ergonomics or working methods or challenges with coping and bring the matter up. This results in discussions and solutions,” Visuri describes.

Written practices are needed, as well

In addition to reacting to problems observed in day-to-day work, micro-enterprises should strengthen their work ability management by increasing prevention. In a small work community, a sickness absence of just one person can impact the functioning of the entire workplace greatly.

“The practices agreed upon together could be written down as guidelines so that everyone is aware of them. The point of this is not to increase bureaucracy but to ensure that everyone knows what to do in different situations,” Visuri says.

Regular meetings for the entire team also support communication, discussions and brainstorming on how to promote work ability within the work community.

We recommend finding a good occupational health partner from early on.

Occupational healthcare is an important source of support also for micro-entrepreneurs, who should familiarise themselves with the available services. Entrepreneurs do not always know what occupational healthcare does and how it could support wellbeing at work and work ability management.

At some point, micro-enterprises can grow and become larger enterprises, which marks a critical turning point for work ability culture: The CEO might suddenly have so many irons in the fire that they no longer have time for work ability management. On the other hand, a growth company with 50–100 employees might not yet have a separate HR management function that looks after employee wellbeing.

“We recommend finding a good occupational health partner from early on. Pension insurance companies can also provide help and advice on management practices that support work ability,” Kati Korhonen-Yrjänheikki from Elo hints.