Helsinki (10.10.1998 - Linus Atarah) An integral part of the National Programme on Aging Workers, launched earlier this year, includes a scheme for people over 45 years in working life to boost their working ability. A scheme of that nature falls within the overall framework and objectives of the programme which is aimed at improving the working conditions of ageing people so as to prolong their retirement age.

Details of the measures in the project are yet to be worked out, says Heidi Paatero, Secretary-General of the Advisory Board of Rehabilitation at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. But according to her, it would differ in some respects from the traditional methods of rehabilitation because a central focus will be to identify some of the endemic factors in the working environment which inhibit people's performing capabilities or generate occupational illnesses.

There is a worrying concern over the increasing high rates of early retirement in the Finnish labour force. Currently the average age of retirement is 59 years which is low by general European standards. It is therefore imperative to find out if unsuitable working conditions may be the cause of people trying to abandon their jobs early in life. The aim is to accumulate knowledge in the causes of work-related illness and disseminate the information. Therefore, a core task of the project in the initial stages will essentially be information dissemination activity, explaines Paatero.

The practice of previous rehabilitation methods has been focused on training and changing individual people whenever they developed problems which impaired their working ability. A drawback in this individual-centred view of rehabilitation is that it does not go into the root cause of the problem of occupational illness. "When people easily get tired, bored or feel that they work excessively the question is not simply to train them in order to squeeze out more from them but to find out whether work is organised in a rational way", says Paatero.

It is equally inadequate, as has been the practice, to send off a worker on holiday to find curative measures to his illness and return to the same conditions which may have generated the initial illness, says Paatero. Therefore in order to plug the gap in the traditional method, there will be a shift away from the individual as an immediate subject of rehabilitation and rather focus on gaining an insight into the way work is organised, in order to streamline to meet people's needs.

Since the project is aimed at providing optimal working conditions for ageing workers there will be the need to streamline the organisational structures in the workplace, utilising the existing knowledge of old age-related impairements and relocate people according to the tasks which best suit their condition. "The whole project is very much a question of understanding the way ageing people work and to make working conditions suitable to their condition", Paatero stresses.

In this connection she says that there will be the need to adress the issue of technology. In her opinion, there appears to be an insufficient knowledge in the application of technology. For instance, most of the time of office work is spent stucked behind computers and if it is found that this becomes strenuous for ageing people then the application of work techonolgy has to be re-examined.

Paatero is also quick to point out that the term "rehabilitation" is actually a misnomer. "Experts do not even want to call it rehabilitation as such but rather improving the working ability in ageing people", she says. It is less to boost an individual's physical and mental capacity per se and more to create optimal working conditions in which people can perform to their best abilities.

In that connection Paatero admits that the plans to be worked out in the training scheme will not be entirely new because concern over the issue of maintaining people's working ability emerged in the 1990s. It is also currently the subject of attention in another project known as "Ability of the Future" organised by the private insurance institutions. With these as background what needs to be done now is to increase awareness among employers and workers alike.

Existing knowledge on how the work environment affects peoples' perfomances comes from the manufacturing sector where big firms with sufficient resources have conducted pioneering studies on the phenomena and have developed good models to provide workers with motivating and less stressful working conditions. But according to Paatero, the issue has not yet been paid sufficient attention in working situations in the white-collar sector where the working environment is essentially different. Consequently, there is a dearth of knowledge in this sector.

People in white-collar jobs, for instance, frequently suffer from stress and other burn-out phenomena, have a constant feeling of working excessively and yet do not find a way out of the situation. Therefore part of the project's task should be to gain a proper understanding of white-collar work situation and find out what needs to be done in restructuring them.

However, even if a greater awareness becomes widespread about providing optimum working conditions for ageing people, a central issue that needs to be adressed is to find out how different employers will implement the measures. Small scale employers, for instance, might not be able to afford the resources involved in introducing measures, and consideration will be given whether such employers ought to be supported.

Such small scale employers will also need to be convinced that restructuring workplace organisation to meet the needs of ageing workers is ultimately economically beneficial because it will compensate for costs incurred from absenteeism due to work-related illness. So the whole programme has a great deal to do with attitude change to accept that fact that elderly people need to be retained in working life. As Kari Vinni, Secretary-General of the National Programme says, "People have to be convinced that ageing people have an extra value".

Edited by Sheryl Hinkkanen

Originally published in Socius 1-1998, the magazine of Ministry of Social Affairs and Health