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Spotlight on Global I-O

Lori Foster Thompson1
North Carolina State University

1  As always, your comments and suggestions regarding this column are most welcome. Please feel free to e-mail me: lfthompson@ncsu.edu.

Greetings TIP readers and welcome to the January edition of the Spotlight column. Chances are, those of you who didn’t get a sufficient reindeer fix in December are busy planning your weekend getaway to Lapland. If dreams of Northern lights and reindeer safaris have you wondering what it’s like to be an I-O psychologist in Finland, this column is for you! The following pages offer an informative account of the state of I-O in what Newsweek has recently named the “best country in the world” (Harakka, 2010). 

Work and Organizational Psychology in Finland

Left to right: Anneli Leppänen, Anita Rintala-Rasmus, and Anna-Liisa Elo

Anita Rintala-Rasmus
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health

Anna-Liisa Elo
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and University of Tampere

Anneli Leppänen
The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health


About Finland

Finland is one of the Nordic Countries in Europe with around 5.4 million residents. Throughout its independent history, Finland has maintained a capitalist economy. Its GDP per capita and productivity have ranked among the highest in OECD countries since the 1970s. Finns have built an extensive welfare state. Newsweek magazine recently ranked Finland as the best country to be born in, based on a comparison of the living conditions such as education and health care, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment. Like in most EU states, the population is aging and without further reforms (e.g., higher retirement age) or more extensive immigration, Finland is expected to struggle with labor shortage.

History and Background of Work and Organizational Psychology in Finland

In Europe, I-O is referred to as WO, work and organizational psychology. WO psychology has a long tradition in Finland. In 1922, the National Railroads established a psychological laboratory for work-related assessments and personnel selection purposes. They imported, translated, and validated WO psychological methodology from other European countries, especially Germany. In 1939, the city of Helsinki founded a vocational guidance office where psychologists had a central role. In 1947, the Defense Forces General Headquarters appointed their first psychologist for the training unit. The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) was established in 1945. FIOH is a multidisciplinary research and specialist institute offering solutions to develop health, safety, and well-being at work. The Psychology Department at FIOH was started in 1951.

In 1950, Finland welcomed its first professorship in work and organizational psychology. At the moment, the Work Psychology and Leadership Unit at Aalto University School of Science and Technology in Helsinki carries out research on leadership and organizational change; knowledge, competences and networks; and sociotechnical systems and systems thinking. It is also home for the Virtual and Mobile Work Research Unit and for the Human Capital and Leadership Research Group.

Training/Education of Work and Organizational Psychologists in Finland

A master’s degree in psychology, which requires 330 EuroCredits, is needed to become a licensed psychologist in Finland. The studies include both a thesis and an obligatory practical training period of about 5 months. Studying for the master’s degree in psychology takes 5 to 6 years (including bachelor’s degree). Entrance exams are mandatory, and getting admitted is very difficult due to the popularity of psychology as a field of study.

In Finland, specialization training in WO psychology entails a university postgraduate program that results in a specialist degree. As is all university training, the program is free of charge. To apply for this specialization program, a master’s degree in psychology and license to act as a psychologist are required. The specialist degree in WO psychology requires 120 EuroCredits and is designed so that it can be completed within about 4 years. The structure of the degree program includes theoretical specialization studies and supervised work practice in WO psychology (65 EuroCredits), research method studies (15 EuroCredits), and a thesis (40 EuroCredits). The aim of the thesis is to provide the student with the ability and motivation to develop her/his own specialty, both theoretically and in practice, by the means of scientific research. The thesis is written in the form of an APA-style scientific article and aims at peer-reviewed publication.

FIOH offers a 7-week specialization training program for occupational health psychologists. The course consists of 15 contact days with lectures, group work and case studies, and a focused workplace survey exercise in an organization. The distance learning consists of familiarization with literature, Web-based learning, written assignments, and guided analysis of the practices of the students’ own occupational health service units.

Current Trends in WO Psychology in Finland

Vocational guidance and personnel assessment. Employment and Economic Development offices offer vocational guidance and career planning in Finland. The service is free of charge to Finnish citizens. Occupational counseling is targeted especially to young people making vocational choices and to vulnerable groups. The objective of the service is to assess together with a psychologist the clients’ capacities, objectives, and alternatives related to education, training, and employment, and help them make a career plan that best matches their situation. When necessary, various support measures can be used, including aptitude tests and work try outs.

FIOH’s fundamental focus is on promoting occupational health and wellbeing. Accordingly, WO psychology at FIOH takes a clear health orientation. For example, in the personnel assessment services carried out by FIOH work psychologists, selection for risk occupations like air pilots and expatriates have been prioritized. Psychological assessments for selection of personnel have been part of the expert services provided by FIOH from the early beginning. Since 1951, almost 140,000 individual assessments have been carried out by WO psychologists at FIOH. The Ministry of Labor Occupational Counseling Unit and FIOH have also made a major contribution to test development in the field of WO psychology in Finland. Besides FIOH, psychological assessment services for personnel selection purposes in Finland are offered by private consulting companies.

FIOH is a leading organization in psychological assessment in Finland. It is involved in developing best practices and collaborating internationally within ISO2 standard development in the field. FIOH also provides training as part of the qualifications needed to apply for a certificate in psychological assessment. Personnel assessment services at FIOH are based on partnership and collaboration with clients, and a multimethod assessment process. In addition, emphasis is placed on individual developmental feedback for the assessment participants.

2 Editor’s note: ISO refers to the International Organization for Standardization. See Camara (2007) for a discussion of ISO and efforts to develop world-wide standards for psychological testing.

Well-being at work, psychosocial stress factors, and work engagement. Job satisfaction has been assessed in Finnish workplaces for decades, and currently surveys to study factors related to job satisfaction or experienced strain are widely conducted in Finnish workplaces. Research on psychosocial stress factors started in FIOH in the 1970s, according to the U.S. and Swedish models. Research on the topic has continued in several universities. In addition, the prevalence and causes of burnout have been studied and interventions have been developed.

To date, research on the positive constructs associated with occupational well-being has been limited. Mainly, negative work and worker outcomes have been studied. However, it has been regarded as important to recognize the positive outcomes of working and the factors associated with work that produce well-being—for example, work engagement, which is defined as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind and is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. Work engagement has been studied in various professional groups. Studies of Finnish psychologists have revealed that work engagement can essentially improve the quality of work. The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale has been published on the FIOH Web site.

Human factors.
One of the oldest applications of industrial psychology is the area of human factors and ergonomics. In Finland, psychologists studying human factors work in close collaboration with safety-critical fields like aviation, the nuclear power industry, and the army. Psychologists doing research within human–technology interaction (HTI) are few, but the number is increasing in line with more complex and dynamic work processes. In work processes where HTI is vital, psychologists can support the design and improvement of processes, reinforce training and organizational learning, and develop organizational and safety culture in general. 

Interventions to improve work, well-being, and productivity at work. Finland has a long tradition of participatory organizational interventions at the workplace level. The earliest organizational stress interventions were carried out in the 1970s. In the past decade, the number of organizational intervention projects has increased considerably. According to the 2009 Finnish “Work and Health” survey, 53% of the respondents reported that there had been development projects to improve work and well-being at their workplace.

Organizational-level interventions applied in Finland are often based on the survey-feedback method. The psychosocial factors at work are usually surveyed by a structured questionnaire measuring psychological and organizational factors. Feedback on the results is reported by occupational health services personnel or by an external consultant to employees. Management and staff participation is emphasized in the feedback process, which forms the basis for commitment and taking responsibility for the improvement of work. The intervention process is customized by planning the intervention, implementing, and finally evaluating it. The survey-feedback method has become an everyday tool for organizational consultants carrying out measurements of job satisfaction or psychosocial stress.

Finnish WO psychologists have also conducted comprehensive interventions to improve the work ability and well-being of personnel. Interventions to improve work, well-being, and professional competence of workers are based on a detailed analysis of work processes and workers’ developmental needs.

Close collaboration with workplaces is typical of Finnish WO psychology. This may be based on the praxis-oriented landing of WO psychology in the country or on the strong role of FIOH, which is governed by a tripartite board of employers, employees, and governmental representatives. Even organization development practices have an occupational health emphasis. Various developmental approaches have been researched and applied in private- and public-sector organizations. Survey-feedback based interventions, democratic work conferences, dialogical interventions, interventions in work-process knowledge and well-being, and multilevel interventions to improve well-being in the workplace are examples of approaches, the effectiveness of which has been documented in scientific publications.

Occupational health psychology. Occupational health (OH) psychology is widely applied in the occupational health services and based on Finnish legislation. OH psychologists are specialized in individual-level and organization- level prevention in line with the purpose of the Act on OH. Approximately 90% of workplaces have access to OH services, although there are still shortcomings in the coverage of psychological services in the country. There is a clear need for more trained occupational health psychologists in the field. Approximately 40% of occupational health care clinics have occupational health psychology services available. Prevention of work stress, promotion of work engagement, and mental health first aid are typical goals of OH psychologists.

Only lately there has arisen an interest in the financial and performance effects of occupational health promotion activities. Although there is increasing evidence of the financial effects of ergonomic and safety interventions in Finland, psychosocial interventions need to be investigated as well. New openings in this direction have been made. However, demonstrating the effects of psychosocial interventions on individual and organizational performance (not to mention cost/benefit analyses) is a demanding challenge. One methodological problem arises from the practical strength of OH oriented interventions. Namely, the joint participation of all stakeholders at the workplace and multilevel nature of the interventions pose research design challenges, often preventing the gold standard of a randomized controlled trial from being realized.

Professional Networks

Finnish work and organizational psychologists have established a professional society: TOP ry. TOP ry’s basic functions are to provide a forum for networking with colleagues, to support professional development, and to arrange training and seminars on emerging topics within WO psychology. Many WO psychologists are also members of The Finnish Association for Human Resource Management, HENRY, a society for HRM professionals in Finland. HENRY offers its members newsletters, seminars, conferences, social events, and initiates research projects. The Finnish Psychological Association is an advocate for the professional, financial, and social benefits for psychologists. Furthermore, its goal is to inform society about psychology and to increase the use of psychology as a science. The association also has a division for work and organizational psychology.

Concluding Editorial

So there you have it, an enlightening account of our profession in Finland, where I-O psychology is alive and well. With a particular focus on worker health and quality of life, our Finnish counterparts continue to advance research and practice within the domain of work and organizational psychology. No wonder the elves in Santa’s North Pole workshop are so happy, productive, and engaged!

Web Sites

     FIOH: http://www.ttl.fi/en/pages/default.aspx
     Work Psychology and Leadership Unit:
http://tuta.tkk.fi/en/research/work_psychology_and_leadership/research/ and http://www.bit.tkk.fi/ResearchGroups/ResearchGroups
     The Finnish Psychological Association:
     University network of the Finnish psychology departments:


     Camara, W. (2007). ISO planning to develop international standards on testing in the workplace. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 45(2), 85–89.
     Harakka, T. (2010, August 19). The secrets of Finnish happiness. The Guardian (London), Guardian Features p. 2.