Mental health is a multidimensional issue of work life
Good mental health increases not only personal well-being, but also well-being at work. It reduces mental stress at individual, community and societal levels and it is linked to better productivity in work life. However, mental health disorders cause an increasing number of sickness absences and are a significant reason behind disability pensions.
Mental well-being is one of the cornerstones of work ability. Good mental health supports participation in work life, while mental resources improve the productivity of work. Mentally healthy employees are more energetic, find meaning in their work and are more willing to face the demands of their jobs and manage the various stress factors of work. Thus, mental well-being is not just an individual's personal issue, but it has links to communities, work organizations and society as a whole.
Mental health problems, in turn, represent a major challenge for Finnish work life. They are among the most significant disease groups that lead to incapacity for work and long sickness absences and entail huge costs for both employers and the economy. The costs consist, among other things, of various forms of compensation, health care services, lost working days and poor work performance due to poor health. Reducing the costs of incapacity for work requires researched knowledge of mental health problems and the methods to support the mental health of employees.
Mental health issues in work life
Mental health is a complex issue that can be viewed from many different perspectives. The emphasis may be on medicine, behavioural science or social science. The examination of mental health may focus, for example, on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases or on the cultural regulation of emotions and interpretations. In the context of work life, mental health is essentially connected to the concepts of work ability and functional capacity, which emphasize skills, competence and participation in work.
In researching mental health and work life, the focus is on mitigating the risk factors of psychosocial work environments (e.g. Sickness absence and the strenuousness of work or Psychosocial factors at work), resource-based models that support mental work ability (e.g. Work engagement or the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health's How are you feeling? well-being at work test provides diverse information about well-being at work), as well as analyses of the prevalence of mental health problems by demographic group (e.g. Short sickness absences in different sectors). First and foremost, research is focused on depression and anxiety disorders, sleep problems and job burnout, as their underlying factors are linked to work environment factors (e.g. Factors that predict a mental health diagnosis). Research also emphasizes self-assessed mental symptoms and the experience of stress (e.g. Working Life Barometer data regarding occupational burnout or Municipal work and employee well-being).
The methods of supporting the mental health of employees vary according to the development stage of the problem and can be carried out at several different levels. A mental health problem that has progressed to the level of diagnosis can be treated, for example, with the help of a sick leave, health care services and psychotherapy. At the level of the workplace, an employee's mental health problem can be addressed, for example, by adapted work tasks or a shortened working day with partial sickness allowance.
Prevention is also essential in reducing the costs of mental health problems. This means mitigating risk factors such as work-related stress and harmful workload even before the onset of a mental health problem. This can be promoted, for example, by good leadership, work organization and ensuring competence. Through resource-based thinking, work can provide experiences of job control and meaningfulness that reduce psychosocial stress. Preventive support can also be obtained from an external service provider, for example, through short-term psychotherapy or mental health chat services.
There are varying degrees of researched evidence on the effectiveness of various mental health support measures. According to reviews on the topic, it is possible to reduce mental health symptoms with the help of mindfulness techniques, individual therapy, exercise, training and education as well as recovery interventions. However, the lack of proof of the effectiveness of other forms of interventions does not necessarily mean that they are not impactful, but there is still too little research on many forms of support. An individual-oriented examination of mental health also represents a challenge, both in research and practical support activities, as it does not address the cultural and communal dimensions of the phenomenon.
Mental health-based incapacity for work
Mental health-based sickness absences and disability pensions are one of the measures indicating the mental well-being of the working population. They describe temporary or long-term incapacity for work caused by mental health problems in the framework of existing service systems and legislation. However, they do not cover the entire theme of mental well-being and may not directly reflect changes in the prevalence of mental health problems. Nevertheless, they are a key indicator of the costs of mental health problems.
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Figure 1 shows the development of mental health-based sickness absences compensated by Kela since 1969. The number of new sickness absence periods remained relatively stable for a long time and began to grow strongly in the mid-1990s. The growth declined at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, but as of 2017, the number of sickness absences started growing sharply again. In the long term, it seems that the number of sickness absences has followed the trend that began in the 1990s, and the decline in 2009–2015 was a temporary exception in the growth. The share of mental health-based sickness absences of all sickness absences has increased at the same rate as the number of absences as the number of sickness absences for all diagnoses has remained relatively stable or even slightly decreased since the mid-1990s.
The development of mental health-based sickness absences since the 1990s has followed the trend of the employment rate to some extent. The number of sickness absences began to increase in the 1990s at the same time as the employment rate started rising after the recession. The financial crisis of 2007–2009, in turn, led to a decrease in the employment rate and, at the same time, an increase in the number of sickness absences. The employment rate started to increase again in 2016 and the number of sickness absences began to increase again.
Figure 2 presents information on mental health-based disability pensions. Data on the number of recipients of disability pensions is available from 1995 onwards. Fluctuations in the number of pensioners have not been as strong as with regard to sickness absences. The number of mental health-based disability pension recipients increased during the analysis period until 2008 and started to decline afterwards, with the number of pensioners in 2008 being almost exactly the same as in 1995. By contrast, the share of mental health-based disability pension recipients among all disability pension recipients continued to increase, which is explained by a decrease in the total number of disability pensions.
The annual numbers of persons beginning a mental health-based disability pension are available from 2003 onwards. Unlike with regard to sickness absences, the development has been on a downward trend, with the exception of increases in 2007 and in 2015–2019. The share of persons who have retired on a mental health-based disability pension among all persons who have retired on a disability pension has been relatively stable, but began to grow in 2015–2019.
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The annual numbers of persons beginning a disability pension by gender and age group in years are available in Figure 3. The number of people retiring on disability pension has decreased with regard to both genders, but, for men, the decline has been clearly stronger than for women. The number of people retiring has decreased in older age groups, while among younger age groups, the numbers have increased. Consequently, the differences between the age groups decreased during the analysis period. It should be noted that the numbers of retired people are not proportional to the size of the age groups in the figure.
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Mental health information in the Work-Life Knowledge service
The Work-Life Knowledge service offers several different perspectives on mental health based on various materials and approaches. It includes information on mental health-based sickness absences, psychosocial risk factors in work environments and employees' resources. Each publication offers a unique perspective and the number of publications will increase over time. Links to mental health publications in the Work-Life Knowledge service can be found at the bottom of the page. The list will be supplemented as new content on mental health is published in the service.
Mental health -related content has been emphasized in the Work-Life Knowledge Service publications in 2022–2023 with the aim of gathering indicators that can be used to examine the achievement of the goals of the National Mental Health Strategy and Suicide Prevention Agenda 2020–2030 from the perspective of working life. The compilation of indicators is still ongoing.
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