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Occupational health services report contact surge during coronavirus crisis

Workers report worries about their own physical and mental health, as well as fears over losing their livelihoods.

 Nainen työskentelee kannettavalla tietokonella, koneen näytön kulmalla roikkuu kasvomaski.
Months of telecommuting, or working from home, can lead to a number of mental health problems. Image: Petteri Bülow / Yle

The number of people seeking help and advice from occupational health services has risen sharply during the coronavirus crisis, according to a number of different service providers.

The demand for low-threshold services in particular, such as online chat services, has also noticeably increased during the pandemic.

Annika Jalli, an occupational health doctor with the private social and healthcare provider Mehiläinen, told Yle that the company’s 'Huoli' (or 'Care') chat service has received up to seven times more contacts since the outbreak of the pandemic than in previous years.

Another private healthcare company, Terveystalo, has experienced a similar increase in demand.

"For several years now, the number of visits to occupational health psychologists has increased, but there has been a growth spurt this year, especially in low-threshold services [such as online chat]," Terveystalo's leading occupational health psychologist Antti Aro said.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in spring, many employees in Finland have reported some positive benefits of working from home, such as longer sleep times and less commuter stress.

Others, however, have reported increased worries about boredom, their physical and mental health, and fears over their livelihoods, with the prospect of losing their job or being laid-off a particular concern.

"It is not necessarily a question of increasing problems, but of seeking help at an ever lower threshold," Aro added, but also noted that the number of doctor visits has not increased despite the pandemic.

Demand for services increase during dark winter months

November and the late autumn usually lead to a peak in the number of visitors to occupational health services, but occupational health psychologist Aro said he thinks this year the increase will be even higher than usual.

"Everything is uncertain. Many people are afraid of contracting the virus. In addition, people in the tourism and event industry, for example, have difficulties just making a living," Aro said.

Mehiläinen’s occupational health doctor Jalli agrees.

Story continues after photo.

Private social and healthcare provider Mehiläinen's Occupational Health Doctor Annika Jalli. Image: Mikko Koski / Yle
"The dark winter season increases symptoms associated with people’s tiredness levels," Jalli said, adding that when people have to reduce social contacts such as meeting friends or attending hobbies, this has an extra added impact on mental wellbeing

Psychological Association: Need for more psychological services

The Finnish Psychological Association recently called for an expansion of the availability of occupational health psychological services, as it said working life has become increasingly psychologically and cognitively burdensome for many people during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

This has resulted in an increase in the economic and human costs of working life related to mental health, the association stated, and that mental health problems have become the biggest threat to careers in Finland, causing a loss of up to 17 million working days a year.

The association added that currently only an occupational health nurse and an occupational health doctor have been defined as mandatory professionals in occupational health care. Occupational health psychologists must also be defined as occupational health professionals, the association insisted.

"Then occupational health services would have to provide a psychologist to the working community. It would help with preventative work and at the same time solve problems," the Finnish Psychological Association’s President Annarilla Ahtola said.

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