The mental health challenges faced by young adults have become an essential problem causing poor work ability in Finland. In the study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the work ability of young employees under 35 in the municipal sector was examined from the perspective of work life and cultural change. Based on the extensive interview data, eight characters were developed to describe people's behaviour when faced with changing work life structures and culture.

Mental health challenges as part of everyday life

The different characters depict the mental health of employed young adults as part of everyday life and the related opportunities. Each character strives for meaningful activity and solutions based on their own values, norms and moral principles. Their activity is framed by the available resources. By examining the characters, mental health challenges become part of the material and cultural conditions that frame everyday life.

The characters help identify the different paths of mental vulnerability that are reflected in work ability. The characters also describe the differences between different professional and social classes in the onset and manifestation of mental health challenges. The character typology highlights the fact that under the category of mental health, a number of different challenges related to society, work life and stages of life of an individual have accumulated, which are often solved at the individual level in occupational health care. Problems are easily experienced as related to mental health even if the causes are, in principle, in dysfunctional models or unfulfilled expectations in work life or one's own everyday life in one way or another.

The characters are not individual people

The characters identified in the study do not describe individual people and the typology is not intended for classifying individuals. The characters illustrate the typical patterns of activity in our time and they can be used to identify various mental health-related work ability problems. Supervisors, HR professionals, occupational health care representatives and employees of different ages can benefit from this typology. The characters show us that both material and cultural factors matter when considering solutions. In most cases, new thinking and operational models also affect mental health.

Solutions for supporting different characters

When looking for solutions, the focus should be shifted from individuals to communities. At the level of workplaces, support from the supervisor and the team can be decisive when it comes to coping at work. Some of the characters could be helped by mentoring or work arrangements. Young employees also need regular feedback on their work, as they are still forming an image of themselves as employees. Many of the sore points associated with the characters are embedded so deep in the structures of society that measures beyond the work community and health services are also needed to correct them. Many of the changes in operating frameworks and models may occur outside the scope of traditional mental health care.

The study was carried out as part of the What if the well-being of the mind was to be rebuilt? project conducted by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. Interviews for the study were conducted with 70 people from three different groups in the Helsinki metropolitan area: occupational health care representatives, municipal sector employees under 35 years of age and their supervisors from all sectors of the municipal sector. The study was carried out in co-operation with the Occupational health services of the City of Helsinki and the Occupational health services of the City of Espoo.

The professional losing their ideal
The professional losing their ideal
  • Ethically burdensome sectors, such as health care and social services, early childhood education and schools
  • Principally strict employee quotas, recruitment problems and constant haste
  • Increased problems of families and children, the ageing of the population, the growing share of the population with a foreign background in client families as a societal context
  • The ideals of work collapse in everyday life because it is not possible to carry out basic duties

Figure 1. Eight mental health characters