A study of the Finnish paper industry: Occupational wellbeing can be improved even during substantial structural changes

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A study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) indicates that it is possible to improve occupational wellbeing even during an extensive structural change by focusing on working conditions, strengthening employee competencies as well as teamwork and the training of managers and supervisors. The study was conducted in 2008-2009.
Early measures and the hearing out of employee evaluations of their own working ability were among the factors that promoted wellbeing at the workplace. Employees also felt that job rotation made their work more challenging and varied as well as evened out the distribution of the workload.

 “As job descriptions become ever more expansive, the need to maintain and develop employee competencies is underlined,” says Professor Anneli Leppänen of the FIOH. “More and more employees felt a need to participate in further vocational training. It’s positive that effective methods for developing paper manufacturing competence have already been developed and these can be utilised at the workplace after a relatively short familiarisation period.” 

Finnish Paper Workers’ Union President Jouko Ahonen hopes that the findings of the study will be considered in the everyday practices of all paper industry workplaces. “The workload is being shouldered by a smaller number of employees than before because of the structural change. If we want these people to maintain their ability to cope at work and perform to a high standard, we will have to pay more and more attention to occupational wellbeing and working conditions,” Ahonen points out. 

Executive Vice President Jari Forss of the Finnish Forest Industries Federation highlights the importance of good practices. “The study demonstrated that sickness absences and experiences of occupational wellbeing could be influenced also during substantial structural changes if all involved parties share an appreciation of the matter’s importance. The identified best practices should be applied across the entire industry and the most appropriate methods for each individual factory sought out. The continuous improvement of occupational wellbeing and management of sickness absences are also a substantial component in the competitiveness of the industry,” Forss says.

The study was launched on the joint initiative of the Finnish Paper Workers’ Union and the Finnish Forest Industries Federation in 2008 with the aim of identifying reasons behind sickness absences and exploring means with which to promote occupational wellbeing. The study was funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund. Eight production facilities from four forest industry corporations participated in the project. The paper industry went through a substantial structural change over the course of the project.

Musculoskeletal disorders and diseases the most common cause of sickness absences

The greatest number of sick days in the paper industry are caused by musculoskeletal disorders and diseases. Lengthy sickness absences that last 10 or more days account for more than 60% of all days absent from work.

Musculoskeletal disorders and diseases can be prevented by focusing on the ergonomics of workstations, job and task rotations as well as by investing in aid instruments that facilitate working. Speedy access to care is also a key factor in the management of sickness absences.

Excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and overweight were the factors associated with an individual’s health behaviour that were most clearly connected to the amount of sickness absences. Individual health behaviour can be supported by high-standard occupational health care as well as by early intervention when problems are identified. 

The members of a good team experience greater occupational wellbeing and are less frequently ill

The study indicates that working in a well functioning, cooperative and development-oriented group reduced the amount of sickness absences. This means that absences can be reduced by supporting the good functioning of working groups, supervisors and the entire work community. Most of the work in the paper industry is carried out by teams or other groups.

When substantial changes were implemented at workplaces, the importance of the good management of change processes was underlined.

New procedure for sickness absence notifications working well

A procedure under which an employee who falls ill may be absent from work for a maximum of three days without obtaining a medical certificate was introduced to the collective labour agreement of the paper industry during the course of the study. In addition, some factories tried out return-to-work discussions after lengthy sickness absences and a system of short shifts for employees engaged in three-shift work, among other measures. These experiments yielded positive results and it was felt that they improved employees’ ability to cope at work.

For further information, please contact:
Centre of Expertise Director, Professor Anneli Leppänen, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, tel. +358 40 506 6186, anneli.leppanen@ttl.fi

Team Leader Krista Pahkin, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, tel. +358 46 850 7717, krista.pahkin@ttl.fi

Industrial Safety Secretary Hannu Ulenius, Finnish Paper Workers’ Union, tel. +358 45 138 0102, hannu.ulenius@paperiliitto.fi

Executive Vice President Jari Forss, Finnish Forest Industries Federation, tel. +358 9 132 4440, +358 40  570 7652, jari.forss@forestindustries.fi