Be more Finland?

Sarah Norgate and Cary Cooper on remote work and psychological autonomy.

On the face of it, there seem to be compelling reasons to live in Finland – for the third consecutive year, Finland has topped the United Nations Happiness rankings (Helliwell et al., 2020). This position arose from the self-reported quality of life evaluations from citizens of 156 countries. Next up, the country’s capital Helsinki has also topped the rankings of 40 global cities for having the best work-life balance based on measures of working hours, wellbeing, average commute duration, holiday time and civic rights. And last, in terms of icing on the ‘quality of life’ cake, the Finnish Government Working Hours Act (2019) enabled workers to independently decide how, when and where they work for at least half of their working time. 

Of course, any country that is put on some kind of ‘health and wellbeing’ pedestal will both attract and deserve probing questions. For instance, as of yet there are no available direct reports of the social impact of the Working Hours Act (2019). However, research supporting the principle of giving workers professional autonomy is unequivocal (Maslack & Leiter, 2017) and particularly crucial in preventing burnout (Sonnentag, 2015). More specifically, perceived control – be this in terms of empowerment or in terms of locus of control – has a positive impact on wellbeing (Eatough and Spector, 2014), and so the involvement in shared or individual decision-making over our time and place of work is important.   

As we go on to argue, this is not to suggest that there are no negatives around remote work – indeed, the top three concerns purely from a remote worker perspective (Buffer 2020) were collaboration and communication, loneliness and not being able to unplug. And whilst the element of risk of loneliness during telecommuting or remote work directly captures one of the key mental health angles associated with working out of the office, the questions raised about this issue have tended themselves to be have been taken in isolation.

For instance, the claim that some workers experience isolation while working out of the traditional office setting tends to be considered ‘stand-alone’ rather than pinpointing the diverse sources of stress routinely associated with working in the office, and how these may impact differentially on individual workers. This is relevant in the light of the estimates of mental health toll at work' for instance in the UK it is estimated to be around £34.9 billion (Centre for Mental Health, 2019), with the largest form of business cost attributed to reduced productivity in the form of presenteeism, where people turn up at the office but are unwell. It is relevant to say that these estimates were produced at around a time when the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) (2019) estimated that only around half of workers worked flexibly.

For those of us who don’t inhabit Finland to access such national directives, what reasons are there to hold out hope for the autonomy to make a choice about remote work? First, there is some new evidence that the introduction of policy drivers per se may exert a positive influence on worker wellbeing. For instance, following the introduction of the US 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, research (Kwon & Jeon 2020) showed that worker satisfaction doubled. Therefore, there are grounds for persuasion, be it at either national or organisational level, could help culture shifts towards making choice about remote working and in particular benefit those already experiencing mental health and wellbeing challenges. 

Second, there is evidence of the value in persuading workplace leaders of the positive impact of their own actions in remote work. Kwon and Jeon (2020) show that for every unit increase in the perceived level of senior leader support toward work/life programs, the odds of a teleworker being very satisfied were 1.87 times greater than other response categories. 

Finally, our skills and performance can be different working at home versus the office. Comparison of the performances of part time teleworkers who worked at home as well as in the office has shown that their motivations and actions differed across the two locations (Müller & Niessen, 2019). On days participants worked at home, workers showed higher self-goal setting, self-rewards and also visualised successful work performance. Given these ‘self-leadership’ strategies were used more at home than in typical office work, managers should be aware that behavioural motivations can be strong in home-working.

Collectively then, these studies show that even if there is an absence of national policies on remote work, that the role of organisational level policies and leadership can still play some role in enhancing job satisfaction and wellbeing, which is one reason why personal worker involvement in organisational decision-making around choices for wellbeing matters. 

Both Sir Cary Cooper and Dr Sarah Norgate are authors of a book about flexible working called ‘Flexible Work: Designing our Healthier Future Lives

Dr Sarah Norgate - Author    

Professor Cary Cooper – 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health, Alliance Manchester Business School


Buffer (2020) The 2020 State of Remote Work

Centre for Mental Health (2019). Mental health problems at work cost the UK economy £34.9 bn, says Centre for Mental Health.

Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. (2019). Survey report 2019: UK working lives [online]. London: CIPD. 

Eatough, E.M. and Spector, P.E., (2014). The role of workplace control in positive health and wellbeing. In P. Chen and C.L. Cooper (Eds.), Work and Wellbeing, vol. 3 of Wellbeing: A complete Reference Guide (pp. 91-110). Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell

Finnish Government Working Hours Act (2019). 

Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (Eds). (2020). World Happiness Report 2020. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions.

Kwon, M., & Jeon, S. H. (2020). Do Leadership Commitment and Performance-Oriented Culture Matter for Federal Teleworker Satisfaction With Telework Programs? Review of Public Personnel Administration40(1), 36–55.

Maslach, C., and Leiter, M.P. (2017). Understanding Burnout: New Models. In Cooper, C.L. & Quick, J.C., (Eds.) The Handbook of Stress and Health, (pp. 36-570). Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Müller, T, Niessen, C. (2019). Self‐leadership in the context of part‐time teleworking. J Organ Behav.  40: 883– 898.

Sonnentag, S. (2015). Wellbeing and burnout in the workplace: Organizational causes and consequences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, vol. 25, (pp. 537-540).

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