Helsinki (20.11.1998 - Juhani Artto) Last year 37 per cent of wage and salary earners in Finland felt they had good opportunities for personal development at work. Twenty years ago 28 per cent of employees felt the same way. This is one of the positive trends in working life shown in surveys conducted by Statistics Finland. In its new book this institution compares the working conditions of wage and salary earners in 1977, 1984, 1990 and 1997.

What are the most significant changes?

The high unemployment caused by the 1990-1993 recession has strongly influenced the importance attached by employees to their work. On the eve of the recession 25 per cent of employees considered their work to be "very important and significant". By 1997 this proportion had risen to 40 per cent.

The change is well explained by two other figures. 37 per cent of wage and salary earners in 1990 still thought they had good chances of finding another job. By last year, however, this had fallen to 23 per cent. The proportion of those who had changed their jobs in the last five years fell from 42 to 34 per cent.

The proportion of part-time workers (fewer than 30 working hours per week) has increased only slightly. In 1997 it was 11 per cent among women employees and 5 per cent among men. Those in temporary jobs last year accounted for 18 per cent of wage and salary earners. In 1990 this figure was 15 per cent, while in 1984 it was only 11 per cent.

In the early stages of the 1990-1993 recession many union leaders and activists feared that the rate of union membership among wage and salary earners would fall, but in fact the opposite has happened. In 1990 the organising rate was 72 per cent, but by 1997 it had risen to as much as 79 per cent, which is one of the highest rates of membership in the world.

It is interesting that at the same time the proportion of those who believe they share common interests with their employers has increased from 56 to 67 per cent.

However, in 1984-1990 and 1990-1997 differences of attitude at the workplace grew clearly in all categories. Last year 69 per cent of wage and salary earners admitted differences of opinion with their supervisors, 68 per cent with colleagues and 56 per cent between staff groups.

Increasing competition in the business world is clearly reflected in the use of time and motion studies to appraise of productivity. Last year 61 per cent said that their employers have increased productivity appraisal, while in 1990 this figure was 46 per cent. One surprising finding is that the proportion of those receiving productivity bonuses was higher in 1990 (26 per cent) than in 1997 (21 per cent).

Access to opportunities for additional vocational training has steadily increased. 24 per cent of workers enjoyed such opportunities in 1977, 31 per cent in 1990 and 35 per cent in 1997. However, last year only 9 per cent considered their chances of promotion to be good, compared with 10 per cent in 1990.

In 1997 more than half of the respondents felt that they had a lot, or rather a lot of influence on working methods, workplace rhythm and working arrangements. When asked about their influence on the content of their work, on the division of labour, on retooling and on choice of colleagues less than half gave positive responses. In all categories except rhythm of work employees feel that their influence has increased both in the 1980s and in the 1990s. The feeling of employee influence on work rhythm increased from 1984 to 1990 but was slightly below the 1984 level in 1997.

There is a growing sentiment of having too few employees to perform the given tasks. In 1990 this feeling of understaffing was shared by 44 per cent of employees, but the figure was 52 per cent in 1997.

It is slowly becoming more common to have a female supervisor. In 1997 56 per cent of female employees and 9 per cent of male employees were in such a position. It is also becoming gradually more common for employees to have at least partly supervisory roles. In 1997 the proportion of workers in such employment was 32 per cent.

The studies reveal that despite all efforts, employees feel that their physical work environment has deteriorated. They report worsening extremes of heat and cold, more disturbance at work, more dust and more noise. Workers increasingly have to perform repetitive limited movements. Hardly any category of attitude towards the physical work environment shows improvement.

The studies also included questions about working hours. Even though employees have increasing freedom to choose the time of starting and finishing their daily shift, in 1997 fewer employees feel that there are enough breaks than thought so in 1990.

The proportion of those doing unpaid overtime has grown surprisingly rapidly. In 1984 it was 20 per cent, but by 1990 this had already reached 30 per cent and last year it stood at 34 per cent. The authors of the book regard the trend as clear evidence of a deeper commitment to work and an intensification of work.

In 1997 a third of respondents complain of being very much or rather much in a hurry at work. This problem has worsened steadily. In 1977 only 18 per cent of wage and salary earners made this complaint.

In 1997 a large majority, 62 per cent, say that the tempo of work has accelerated over the last few years. In 1984 the same was said by 46 per cent of the sample. Over the same period the proportion of those reporting very or rather heavy mental stress at work has grown from 46 to 51 per cent.

When asked about positive factors affecting their job satisfaction, independence at work scored best. A majority also referred in this connection to variety of work and morale at the workplace. Almost two thirds think they have an interesting job.

Of factors bearing negatively on job satisfaction, haste is clearly number one, followed by low pay and lack of promotion prospects.