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Last updated: 21.06.2023

Early support helps maintain work ability

Early support for work ability refers to measures that promote work ability and prevent its decline in the long term. Workers are entitled to support for their work ability.

All workplaces should have an operating model for early support (variably called varhainen tuki, varhainen välittäminen, and varhainen puuttuminen) that defines the responsibilities of the employer and the occupational health service in managing work ability and absences due to illness. The model lists the warning signs of a declining work ability and the policies for discussing the issue with the worker in question. 

The purpose of early support measures is to promote work ability and prevent incapacity for work (työkyvyttömyys). The early work ability support measures are negotiated for each workplace by the employer, workers, and occupational health service.  

Work ability discussion – worker and supervisor 

Typically, the first step of early support models is a work ability discussion or early support discussion had by the worker and their supervisor. The discussion may be suggested by the supervisor, worker, occupational health and safety representative, or occupational health service. At the worker’s request, the occupational health and safety representative or union representative may also be included. 

The discussion concerns the work ability issue’s effects at work and the worker’s remaining capacity and current limitations. The discussion must focus on work-related matters: the worker’s skills and knowledge, stress factors at work, working conditions, ergonomics, tools, management, and workplace atmosphere. 

The worker may mention stress factors in their private life at their own discretion, but the employer may not pry into the worker’s private affairs. The worker’s health data is not appropriate to discuss either. 

The discussion’s end goal is to mutually agree upon how the worker’s work ability can be improved and what adjustments may be needed in their duties or working conditions. The agreed upon measures must be carried out and their results monitored. 

Work ability negotiation – worker, supervisor, and occupational health service 

If health problems are discovered in the work ability discussion between the worker and their supervisor or no agreement is reached, a work ability negotiation must be requested from the occupational health service. The work ability negotiation is also often organised for workers who return to work after a prolonged absence due to illness.  

The work ability negotiation includes the worker, their supervisor, and a representative from the occupational health service. At the worker’s request, the occupational health and safety representative, union representative, or other support person from the workplace may also be present. 

The participating physician must be the worker’s treating physician and aware of the worker’s health problems and the limitations of the worker’s illness regarding the work. Typically, the worker has an appointment with their physician before the work ability discussion in the first step. 

The purpose of the work ability negotiation is to find ways to adjust the worker’s current job to allow them to continue working. The negotiation is solely focused on the worker’s work ability. The physician explains what limitations the illness and recovery may pose for work and what kind of work may help or hinder recovery.  

The physician may not explain the workers’ illnesses in detail without the worker’s explicit permission. 

Negotiations are for the good of both parties 

The work ability negotiation aims for a good solution for both parties. It includes the planning of the necessary adjustments for the worker’s return to work, also considering the option for partial sick leave, for example. Sometimes the best solution may be a temporary or permanent transfer to an alternative position more suited to the remaining work ability. If a transfer is impossible, another option is vocational training or retraining, in which case the pension insurance company will pay some of the cost. 

If temporary or permanent changes are made to the duties of the returning worker, the worker and their supervisor should discuss how the changes are communicated to the rest of the work community. This avoids conflicts resulting from suspicions of unfair treatment. Openness and transparency improve understanding and trust in the workplace. 

Useful links 

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