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Well-being at work sparks productivity

Well-being at work sparks productivity

| Text and Photo: Berit Kvam

Facing global competition Finland's way: go for sustainable working life.

Flexicurity is the order of the day when EU employment ministers meet in Finland in October to discuss work and productivity. The discussion on what will be EU's common principles on flexicurity also featured prominently at the informal minister meeting in Helsinki in July. At this first conference of the Finnish EU presidency Finland promoted well-being at work as a prerequisite for increased productivity.

"It is not a problem that people live longer, it's progress", said Finland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health during her opening speech. The question is how society and working life face the challenges of an increasing elderly population.

To reach the goal of a more competitive Europe, you need increased productivity. But how do you increase productivity while trying to include more people in the labour market, and as retirement ages are being increased?

Meeting the challenges of demographic change and globalisation in working life was the theme during the largest ever meeting of EU ministers, when the three Finish ministers for social affairs, health and labour met their European colleagues. This horizontal approach to the issues led to the unusual combination of ministers, as well as a debate with different angles to the challenges of 'adding to productivity by developing the quality of working life; lengthening working careers by means of social policy; promoting health in working life'.

At the same time the life cycle approach and gender mainstreaming was to be implemented in all discussions. This broad approach to such challenges has become typical of Finnish politics. It also influenced both the meeting of ministers and the previously held meetings between the presidency and the parties in the working life and with the representatives from NGOs.

"We cannot solve the challenges we're faced with on our own, so it is necessary for us to work together", the Minister of Labour emphasised to the press in her introductory speech.

Knowledge and participation

Well-being at work sparks productivity, the Finns say. When people enjoy work, it influences both performance and creativity. What's more, if you want more people to desire to work in higher ages, working life must be made more attractive. Working conditions must be good, to make sure people aren't expelled from working life. On the contrary, to stay in work must become beneficial to health.

There must also be a good balance between work and family life, and there must be a drive for development and increased competence through life-long learning based on good social dialogue.

"If we don't keep our focus on the human being and look after people, we loose. We need dedicated and participating workers. Money's world and people's world must develop together”, Minister of Labour Tarja Filatov tells Nordic Labour Journal. But she also emphasises that increased productivity is not the sole responsibility of businesses: "Both the state and the parties in the working life have a role to play".

But does this message reach the rest of Europe?

"I've had many positive reactions from my colleagues in Europe, because we see increased productivity in relation to well-being at work", she says.

The other Nordic ministers commended the presidency's approach:

"It is very interesting that Finland has promoted the importance of work environments in relation to productivity", the Danish Minister of Labour, Claus Hjort Frederiksen says. The working environment is also on the agenda in Denmark, he says, and in particular the psychological working environment. He points out that Denmark has just presented a strategy for the development of the working environment towards the year 2010.

"It is important that emphasis is also put on health in the wider perspective", says Norway's Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Bjarne Håkon Hanssen. He takes part in the meeting because of Norway's EFTA presidency.

"The Nordic region exemplifies progress. Europe is inspired by the Nordic region, but you won't get the same Nordic cross-party co-operation in other parts of Europe", Sweden’s Minster of Labour, Hans Karlsson says.

Flexibility and social security

Globalisation leads to more rapid changes to the labour market than ever before.

”Structural changes happen so quickly, and we can't stop them”,Tarja Filatov says. “We used to protect the work place. Now we need to protect the people”, she adds.

Jobs are cut and new ones are created. The challenge is to find a balance between flexibility and security. Flexicurity is on the map in the EU, and will characterise Europe through the common principles which are to be agreed upon.

Vladimir Spidla, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, often uses the Nordic region as a good example.

"It is an acknowledgement from the Commission to have this debate, but the aim is not for other countries to copy the Danish or Nordic model. The important thing is that the expression has been accepted", says Claus Hjort Frederiksen.

He underlines that Danish flexicurity is based on social dialogue, and that it rests on three pillars: Weaker job protection, good protection during unemployment and an active labour market policy.

"This has led to very high social mobility. Then there is a need to invest in life-long learning. Workers must have the right to get time off for education", he adds.

Claus Hjort Frederiksen feels it is absolutely OK to arrive at some common principles on flexicurity through debate. "If we are to fulfil the Lisbon strategy, we need increased flexibility.

But flexibility demands strong partners in working life - without them there is no one to have a dialogue with. You cannot have real dialogue in countries where union support is only about 10 per cent. It is also a very expensive system for countries which lack well developed social security. That's why each country must create its own flexibility", he says, adding that the core to real flexicurity is that businesses are willing to take social responsibility.

Well being - not yet in Lithuania

Rimantas Kairelis, Lithuanian State Secretary of the Ministry of Social Security and Labour, is optimistic on behalf of his country. He can point to many things indicating Lithuania is heading in the right direction, but admits that two years after joining the EU, it still has a long way to go.

Well-being at work is barely an issue. "These are the priorities of the EU presidency. We have our own priorities. It's difficult for Lithuania to follow. There is a huge difference in the level of productivity and working conditions between Lithuania and the Nordic countries. Higher salaries are our first priority, working conditions are not so important. That is the next step", Rimantas Kairelis tells Nordic Labour Journal. Only ten per cent of workers in Lithuania are union members.

Tri-partite co-operation exists in the upper echelons of society, but enjoys little legitimacy in the work places.

Even though new laws and regulations are put in place, little is done to enforce their implementation, Rimantas Kairelis admits:

"We have quite good legislation on health and safety, but working conditions at the practical level are not so good. We have started at the top of the pyramid. But we have to improve".

"Especially now when we have a lack of labour within almost all sectors, and there is a pressure in the labour market", he adds.

Rimantas Kairelis, Lithuania

Higher salaries, better working conditions and the attitude towards the workers are the main reason why more than 300.000 Lithuanians have chosen to work abroad according to a recent survey commissioned by the government. It also shows that 80 per cent of those asked want to stay abroad only for a short period.

Rimantas Kairelis believes that when people who have worked abroad return, things will change. “They have had good experiences with unions and better attitudes to workers, and will demand better working conditions when they return.”

He also thinks that “there is a slight change of attitude among the employers”.

At the moment the Lithuanian government is working on a strategy on how to manage labour migration.

This strategy will also include measures to enforce health and safety regulations, Rimantas Kairelis says.

One suggestion is to use economic incentives to reward work places which offer good working conditions.



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