The risks in work change treacherouslyKuvateksti: Jussi Hurskainen (left) and Joni Pakarinen remind us that breaks are needed even in the most inspiring work.
What are today’s typical health risks at work? – They are uncontrolled overlong work periods, says Jussi Hurskainen, managing director of Arcusys Ltd, a software company.
An interesting and inspiring project easily consumes a person. You don’t even notice the passing of time, before a pile of other projects are lining up. Rigid deadlines often force the person to work late into the night.
It’s difficult to fall asleep, and an incomplete solution to a work problem wakes you up in the middle of the night. Your neck starts to get stiff. Subconscious fear of possible staff reductions may start to prey on your mind. Soon your nerves are on edge, you get irritated and lose your temper easily.
–There are hardly any physical risks in this type of work. A laptop doesn’t injure your fingers, and electronically adjustable ergonomic work desks are common. The stress is on the head when you use your brains for innovations and information work, Hurskainen summarizes.
The more treacherous risks have been revealed gradually as more experience has been gained. Hurskainen has followed the developments for a good 15 years. The years have taught him to stop reading e-mails after 9 pm.
– When I started IT work, there were a lot of young people in their twenties who didn’t think that someone might actually get over-exhausted from working. Information work increased so quickly that there was hardly any time to see its possible hazards.
– In the past, risks were more concrete. At a construction site a brick might fall on your head. Now mental stress can be so overwhelming that a person doesn’t recover from it. In either case the person ends up on sick-leave or work disability pension, Huskainen says.
Problem-solving is addictive
According to Hurskainen, the risk of burnout grows along with the increasing prevalence of result-based pay, telework, fixed-term work, and mobile work.
– As people work more and more independently, no one looks after them to see if they are alright. Also the responsibility for coping with the work is left entirely up to the employee.
Joni Pakarinen works as a software designer at Arcusys. He believes that the most common risk is simply that people take on too much work. In addition to his experience in the software company, he has worked in the restaurant sector.
– Working is an incentive in itself, because problem-solving is very addictive. But as in everything else, enough is enough.
Pakarinen believes that it’s a good sign if it feels good to come to work every day and the work is meaningful.
– Well-being at work is generally connected to the workplace, but it’s a holistic phenomenon which spills over to leisure time. The day’s work problem may still preoccupy your mind when you’re at home fixing dinner.
Pakarinen has hobbies that counter-balance his work. They are physical activities, including dancing – salsa and swing. He also teaches couple dancing (at Baile Social and Salsa del Este).
– The balance between work and rest is extremely important.
Good work environment from the enterprise, advice from friends
Both Hurskainen and Pakarinen believe that taking care of one’s health and work ability is the duty of the employer as well as the employee. Failure to do so affects both parties.
– It’s the employer’s duty to offer a good work environment as well as opportunities to maintain and improve your well-being. However, the employer can’t force an employee to assume a healthy life-style. That is up to a person’s own motivation, Pakarinen says.
– It would be odd if the employer used for instance an electronic chip or probe to check whether an employee had exercised or gone jogging in the evening. It’s much better that the firm provides a healthy work environment and practical tips and incentives for healthy working and leisure time activities, Hurskainen explains.
It’s also worthwhile to listen to the practical advice and examples of more experienced work-mates, before you find yourself in a vicious circle.
– At work we have talked about sleep disorders, for example. Experience has shown that if you write down the work-related thoughts that bother you before going to sleep, your mind is free of them, even if you haven’t found a solution yet, Pakarinen says.
– Sometimes people ask a colleague to play a game of billiard in the middle of the day. This makes you stand up for a few minutes and forces you to think of something else than your work. The brain gets a short break, Hurskainen says.
During his own free time he relaxes his mind by walking and by participating in a game of paint ball.
The feeling of control in addition to know-how
When a person has multiple employers and work communities, self-management and the feeling of control have become the new key indicators of well-being at work, says Kiti Müller, neurologist and brain researcher.
– It feels good to know that the job is in hand and to understand just what you are doing, she summarizes.
– People need to visualize themselves in relation to their work and their work community. Long careers and commitment to one employer or one type of work are declining. Ever more people have more than one work community, and moving from one to another is common. Sometimes people work by themselves, sometimes with other.
Nowadays work no longer loads the body as it used to, but at times it does load the brain and the mind too much.
– Whatever your know-how or skills are, self-management, self-awareness and the feeling of personal control are increasingly important factors of well-being at work, Müller says.
Müller’s research focus is the relationship between working and the brain, and its cognitive and mental functioning. She worked twenty years at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health studying how work pace and the flood of information affect a person’s alertness, memory and the capacity to learn.
At the age of 60 Müller took a leap to Nokia Technologies, where she is investigating what human work will be in the future, and how health can be promoted in the digital era. Her motto is: ‘Work must evolve in a people-friendly direction’.
There is a limit to the capacity to cope
According to Müller, people must become familiar with their own abilities and limitations. They should also know where to find new knowledge and be ready to ask for it. She has often seen young persons at the limits of their endurance, especially when she has instructed students with their research papers and doctoral theses.
– When students tackle with problems, I urge them to take a pause and rest for a couple of days, but especially young people don’t want to heed this advice. When a person doesn’t have experience, they tend to think that if they only push a little harder, they’ll find the solution.
– As odd as it may seem, a person who wants to find his or her place in the work community and to get ahead, easily overlooks taking care of him- or herself. Many are afraid to say out loud that they just don’t have enough time for everything – because this can be understood to mean that the person doesn’t master their job, or that they spend their time in fumbling, Müller says.
Questions related to human physiology and the capacity to stretch and to cope, are not dealt with sufficiently at college and later in work life. Generally, only years of experience teach these.
From time control to personal time management
Although the nature work and the ways of working have changed, the systems of follow-up and salary policies are still the same as in the post-industrial-revolution era. Time cards, fixed working hours or pay by the hour or month tie people down to a fixed time and place, even if the work requires creative thinking that can be done also in other places than just sitting at an office work desk.
“There are hardly any physical risks in this work. A laptop doesn’t injure your fingers, and the ergonomic work desks are easy to adjust electronically.”
– From the viewpoint of well-being and efficiency, a flexible solution would be better. If your thoughts gets stuck, work a couple of hours on some more routine tasks, and then perhaps go for a walk. If the work starts to move ahead more fluently the next day, then you might do a 10-hour day, says Müller.
Work does not load the body in the same way as before, but at times it does load the brain and the mind too much. Traditional working methods contradict the principles of modern mobile work. They should be abandoned, as far as the employee’s well-being is concerned.
– The precondition is that people are able to and allowed to manage their own time, instead of being subjected to tight control measures. Freedom and responsibility in working are key issues of the modern labour market, Müller summarizes.
Managers with know-how of subject matter are needed
Müller believes that the employees’ well-being is one of the key responsibilities of managers, but she questions their expertise in this area.
– If a manager has never during his career done concrete work related to the decisions he is now making, then timetables and the amount of work delegated to employees tend to be unrealistic, Müller says.
– If a manager does not have profound knowledge of the subject matter in the specialty area of the enterprise, he doesn’t have experience of how many things can go wrong along the way even in a well-planned project. The risk of mistakes and exhaustion grows if the manager does not listen to the team members and trust their opinion of how much time is needed to do the job.
Nevertheless, the responsibility for maintaining the employees’ well-being at work cannot be left up to the supervisors, authorities, legislation, or individual employees.
– Everybody must be motivated to take care of themselves and their well-being. In this way everyone gains.
Occupational health in the digital era?
According to Müller, global digitalization brings new challenges also to the providers of occupational health services, well-being services, and the entire personnel administration.
– How will services be provided in the future, when work requires people to move more than ever within a country as well as globally? To what extent can the services be virtual, and when are face-to-face contacts necessary?
Müller predicts that people will start to make personal contracts with occupational health service providers, because employers will change more frequently than before. She also believes that personal measuring devices for monitoring physical fitness, energy level, alertness, body functions as well as brain physiology, will become more widespread.
– Consumers already have access to an abundance of different health monitoring bracelets, watches and ear buttons, whose reliability is improving continuously. However, they have not been validated sufficiently scientifically, so that they could be used for promoting occupational health.
– Employees should have access at their workplaces to knowledge about human limits of physiological flexibility, sleep and alertness. This knowledge should be applied to the context of the work day, but also to daily life in general, because loading peaks are not necessarily connected to working.
Would your workplace pass a health check?
Managers, enterprise image designers and job applicant interviewers increasingly face the question, “Is working pleasant in your enterprise?”
What would a health examination of a workplace be like? The answer is not easy even for someone with expertise in the area.
– I worked for 20 years as an occupational health nurse. Eventually I ran out of ways to help people. In addition to providing occupational health services, there was a simultaneous need for social services, employment services and psychiatric services, says Oili Kettunen.
Today she is employed at the Vierumäki Sports Center as the development manager of well-being products for employees. Last year in her doctoral thesis she demonstrated that increasing physical activities is especially beneficial for persons whose work ability has weakened and stress level is high.
– Earlier, people used to complain of a stiff neck, headache or other physical symptoms. When I was leaving my work as an occupational health nurse 15 years ago, people already had the courage to come and talk about their stress, depression, and work overload, which they had been used to hiding earlier. Since then, people’s awareness of the loading of work has increased significantly, Kettunen explains.
When she started to study the changes in people’s well-being at work, more and more difficult questions came up.
– Although work has become lighter physically, and working conditions, work safety, labour protection as well as working methods have been researched and improved, work stress has not decreased. New hazardous exposure factors emerge all the time as the nature of work changes.
The law left room for interpretation
According to Kettunen, for a long time occupational health services were perceived as the curative care of disorders and diseases. Only during the past few years has the emphasis shifted to people’s well-being at work and the prevention of risks.
– The legislation requires employers to take care of their employees’ work ability and well-being, but the contents of the measures are not determined in detail. At first the activities were diverse, and it was believed that the goal would be reached with a variety of random measures.
“It’s more important to know that if problems do come up, there are good solutions available for tackling them.”
Kettunen says that the promotion of well-being should be based on long-term, carefully planned activities. The health of the employees should be improved simultaneously with the functions of the organization.
She points out that everyone can improve their own attitude as well as the work climate of the whole work community. This task cannot be outsourced to the organization or its “well-being at work coordinators”.
– If, on the other hand, the employee’s functional capacity is lowered and there are loading factors in the work, the employer must take action to lighten the work. Similarly, the person’s working methods or job description should be changed, and work aids should be provided so that his or her functional capacity, and consequently well-being, can be restored.
Tolerating uncertainty – a new work life topic
According to Oili Kettunen, being able to tolerate uncertainty is becoming a new basic skill needed in work life.
– The changes are rapid, and it’s often impossible to guess what comes next. When it is not possible to improve the conditions at the workplace, the central goal from the viewpoint of well-being is to strengthen people’s own resources and take care of them.
Kettunen is concerned that this kind of approach is not taught anywhere. In her opinion, the new challenges in work life should be brought to light already in the vocational training of students and work trainees.
– We can’t fool ourselves to stand long-term stress. Even if we think we can continue to handle stress, at some stage our physiology will begin to crumble and symptoms will emerge.
Company images grow healthier
A good work climate and investing in well-being at work will be increasingly important elements of company images. They are valuable assets, also business-wise, just like sustainable development.
– From the enterprise’s perspective, the well-being of employees is no longer a mere legal obligation – it is a noteworthy competitive factor. It helps to polish the company image and creates a positive mental picture of the organization, especially when new employees are being recruited, Kettunen explains.
According to her, the management plays a key role in creating a culture of well-being at work.
– It is especially important to make it obvious to the personnel what well-being at work is all about. Promoting well-being has to be a joint effort that benefits everybody. Changes must also be followed up with concrete indicators. Kettunen proposes that the enterprise’s occupational health service personnel should be involved in developing these indicators.
Psychosocial well-being at work
It is enough for many people to know that there is an action model at their workplace, if their work ability decreases for one reason or another. This is the view of research professor Marianna Virtanen from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. She says that the psychological safety network of the workplace is an important element in maintaining mental health. Psychosocial well-being means well-being that is based on psychological as well as social factors.
– The safety network doesn’t have to be visible all the time on a wall poster. You don’t even have to think about it when everything is fine. It’s more important to know that if problems do come up, there are well planned protocols available for coping with them.
– Along with changes in the work, the psychosocial aspects of well-being are prioritized more than physical safety. It is increasingly important to be able to perceive that we do our work well. This means that in addition to traditional occupational safety and proper work tools, our know-how has to be compatible to the demands of our work, Virtanen emphasizes.
According to her, it is very likely that the psychosocial aspects gain momentum as the borders of working times get blurred, and the uncertainty arising from the work and work contracts increases.