Professor Anne Kouvonen: To reduce health differences, society must support people

Stress experienced by bosses is in the limelight, but in real life, mental problems are accumulated by those in manual labour, much like physical problems.

Occupational healthcare has a reputation of catering to the better-off. However, it is most often used by those in a physical line of work, according to Anne Kouvonen, a professor of social policy at the University of Helsinki.

A research project headed by Kouvonen is examining the use of occupational health services by employees under the age of 35 years working for Finland’s largest employer, the City of Helsinki. Their use was most prevalent among employees in the fields of early childhood education, pre-primary education and healthcare.

Furthermore, the mental stressfulness of work is more prevalent among the lower ranks of the labour market hierarchy.

“The difference remained even when we attempted to standardise other variables. It seems that physical work is also mentally more stressful than office work,” states Kouvonen.

One reason may be the smaller extent of autonomy in organising the work and working hours.

“All duties must be completed according to practices agreed upon higher up, even if they are not deemed sensible. This increases the mental stress of work.”

Such an observation fascinates Kouvonen, whose research has already for a long time focused on the inequality of health.

“The health of individuals remains connected to their socioeconomic status,” Kouvonen sums up.

However, this connection is not always straightforward. While investigating mortality among working-age immigrants, Kouvonen found that premature deaths among low-income immigrants occur less often compared to Finns of a similar economic position.

“Lower alcohol-related mortality is at least a partial explanation.”

Poor lifestyle is not just a personal choice.

Indeed, Kouvonen wishes to emphasise that human health and lifestyle depend to a surprisingly large degree on the environment and the support it provides.

“Poor health and bad lifestyle are not only personal choices. Society as well must provide support if we wish to close the health gap and care for those less well off.”

The same applies to society in general, which the youngest professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences knows on a personal level.

“I come from a working-class background, but the welfare state has made my career path possible”, explains Kouvonen.

“The notion that individual success is solely dependent on industriousness and exceptional talent is simply untrue. I would not be here without free schooling and university education, public healthcare, as well as study and housing benefits.”

Anne Kouvonen

Professor of social policy

Born in Kajaani in 1974

Defended her doctoral dissertation in 2002 on the employment of schoolchildren and its link with criminal activity and intoxicant use

Research fellow at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, 2002–2003  

Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham United Kingdom, 2003–2010

Assistant professor at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wroclaw, Poland, 2011

Lecturer at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2012–2014

University lecturer at the University of Helsinki, 2014–2016

Inaugural Lecture 5th December 2018