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Preparation for a long working life should start early

Preparation for a long working life should start early

| Text Carl-Gustav Lindén Photo: Cata Portin

Preparation for a long working life should start early. Finnish authorities, trade unions and employers’ organizations are trying to bring about a change in attitudes that will once again make older people feel welcome in the workplace.

They all agree that preparation for a long working life should start early.

With its 55,000 square metres, 65 shops and 1,100 employees, the Jumbo shopping centre is one of Finland’s largest shopping complexes. Marjo Lehtinen, 31, works in the store-room at the Prisma department store. She briskly unpacks children’s rainwear, tagging each of the items and hanging them on a clothes rack. It is Monday morning, and the staff at Prisma are unpacking articles to be placed on the shelves that were cleared by thousands of customers during the weekend shopping rush.

– We don’t have time to get out any new articles at weekends, she says and admits that the storeroom is restful in its way since you don’t have to think about anything else.

Marjo Lehtinen works in the menswear department and is also undergoing supervisor training.

- This is a big company and I like variety.

Her colleague Sirpa Hagren, 27, is lacing up sports shoes in the sports and leisure department, where she works. Laced-up shoes are a service the store likes to offer customers, even though it takes up a lot of working time.

- I must have laced up a few thousand pairs by now.

Sirpa Hagren is a cosmetologist and had her own beauty salon for four years. Marjo Lehtinen worked for ten years in restaurants and shops and as an office secretary. They can both look forward to a working career lasting several decades. Will they be able to cope? Shopwork is stressful, with early and late shifts, extreme customer peaks, a large range of goods and frequent sales campaigns and seasonal variations.

- Our department has a heavy workload as we have such varied duties and a small workforce, says Sirpa.

Their employer has had the foresight to include the Prisma store in the Well-Being at Work Programme, a national occupational health programme. They have been interviewed about their work and taken part in workshops where they learned how to recognize and deal with stress symptoms and cope with the work climate and their relationships with their colleagues.

– We have also set up a working hours bank’. Whenever we work overtime, our hours are put into a ‘bank’, and then we take out corresponding amounts of leave when it is convenient, says Sirpa.

According to Marjo Lehtinen, the greatest advantage of this system is that work schedules are now fixed in consultation with the employees. The service manager reviews the special needs of each member of the staff for the coming six-week period and takes them into account as far as the workload allows.Tuulikki Petäjäniemi

Tuulikki Petäjäniemi, Project Manager of the Well-Being at Work Programme, says that the working hours bank is an important innovation; it makes it possible to adjust the rhythm of the workplace to production conditions.

At the same time, it makes it possible for the staff to fit in their working time with their family and leisure time. A questionnaire survey showed that only 40 per cent of respondents really wanted to work the same hours every day, while 60 per cent were happy to work evening and weekend shifts as it made it easier for them to coordinate their job with the rhythm of family life.

Finland went into recession in the early 1990s. What started as a lively debate among politicians about the ageing population and a future shortage of labour turned into a discussion of ways and means of addressing mass unemployment of the order of 20 per cent. In that situation most companies took advantage of public aid schemes to release older workers.

Thanks to legislative amendments, attitude management and concrete projects, this trend was gradually reversed. The average retirement age is now 59, which is one year higher than at the end of the 1980s, when the economic crisis started. Developments in Finland have been faster than in the other EU countries, and the employment rate among older people is higher. But the official retirement age is 65, although only one out of six employees works that long.

At least 1 million people will retire during the period 2010-2015. How will the next generation manage to support the welfare state with all its old-age pensioners? Pertti Linkola of the Ministry of Labour was the project manager of the recently terminated national Older Worker Programme, which drew attention to prevalent attitudes towards older workers.

. Raising the age of retirement will require good leadership and sound owner policies in business and the local government sector, says Mr. Linkola.

He goes on to say that the tradition of early retirement goes back to the post-war years when the need was felt to reward those who took part in the war Finland by shortening their working lives. However, there are several other reasons too, including the fact that as late as the 1960s life expectancy in Finland, especially in the eastern part, was shorter than in the other Nordic countries.

According to Mr. Linkola, the Older Worker Programme has improved the spiritual climate, and he thinks that open age discrimination is now rare, except when it comes to new recruitments.

- Being older is no longer necessarily considered a disadvantage, and experience is now regarded as a national asset.

But Pertti Linkola emphasizes the need to take steps to prepare for a long working career at an early stage. Employees who have not updated their skills by the age of 35 are already being left behind, and in another ten years they will face acute problems. Finns are increasingly choosing individual solutions when it comes to the need to enhance their skills.

- The changes taking place in the world of work are greater than they may appear at first glance. Union membership is declining, and we have noted that there is a new group of people who prefer to take care of their further education themselves and enrol in the private unemployment insurance system.

There was a lot of talk in the 1990s of ‘tyky’ activities at work. ‘Tyky’ is a Finnish abbreviation for health promotion in the workplace that was introduced by the social partners in 1989.

- When you say ‘tyky’, people think of pole walking and a healthy diet, says Tuulikki

Petäjäniemi, leader of the Well-Being at Work Programme, which is now in its last year. But in that context it is about finding new, lasting solutions at workplace level that improve job satisfaction, increase employees’ ability to work and their well-being in general.

Ms Petäjäniemi, who is 60 herself, emphasizes three points. First, the need of day-to-day leadership in the workplace, i.e. supervisors who are available to communicate with and help their co-workers deal with change.

- We don’t have a toolkit. Development must be implemented in the workplace itself.

The second element is learning in connection with work, which means that colleagues help each other, older workers help those who are younger, people rotate between various tasks and workplace-specific skills requirements are documented and taken into account.

The third innovation is the working hours bank that was mentioned earlier.

Last autumn the programme’s management received 250 applications from enterprises, public authorities and organizations that wanted to improve their workplaces. About 3 million was allocated to support 100 such applications.

- The main thing is to set up models of excellence. Both the Older Worker Programme and the Well-Being at Work Programme are based on cooperation between several ministries and authorities. In addition, there are also a national working life development programme and a national production programme. All the project managers are located in offices on the same floor, which eliminates the risk of duplication.

- The fact that there are several programmes is all to the good, claims Ms Petäjäniemi.

It is hoped that people at various levels of management in the target groups will all find something of interest.

- Safety delegates may find the Well-Being at Work Programme most interesting, while engineers are drawn to the production programme and personnel managers to another programme.

Finland’s Social Democratic Minister of Labour, Tarja Filatov, points out that the combined impact of the various programmes has contributed to changes for the better and that they cannot be separated.

- They all have the same objectives, i.e. to help people so that they can have a longer working life and be more productive without any increase in their workload.


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