Finland witnesses a remarkable shift in public health trends, with long-term sickness absences caused by traditional diseases like heart and cardiovascular diseases, digestive system illnesses, and respiratory diseases now constituting only a third of what they were in 1970. This significant change is attributed to lifestyle modifications, improved living conditions, and changes in the nature of work.
Kela, the Finnish social insurance institution, provides sickness benefits for 16-67-year-olds during extended periods of illness, compensating for income loss during absences exceeding nine days but less than a year. Back in the 1970s, these traditional diseases accounted for 39% of the starting sickness benefit periods. However, in 2022, their share plummeted to just 12%.
This trend is mirrored in the statistics of disability pensions: heart and cardiovascular diseases are increasingly less common as causes for disability retirement.
The shift in reasons for sick leaves reflects broader societal changes. Notably, the reduction in smoking and consumption of saturated fats, improved hygiene standards, economic prosperity, and better air quality in cities have all contributed to this decline. Advances in preventive care and treatment methods have also played a crucial role, according to Jenni Blomgren, Head of Research at Kela.
Contrastingly, mental health-related absences have surged, indicating a transformation in work's nature. Where work was once predominantly physical, it's now more cognitively demanding, increasing mental health challenges. Blomgren emphasizes that mental health disorders are not solely work-related but also stem from societal pressures like war anxiety, climate change concerns, financial struggles, and balancing work-family life.
Additionally, the stigma surrounding mental health issues has lessened, encouraging more people to seek help for conditions like depression, which in the past might have been misattributed to physical ailments.
A worrying trend for future health concerns is the rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles, potentially leading to more sick leaves due to musculoskeletal disorders, heart diseases, and mental health issues. Blomgren predicts a continued rise in mental health disorders, particularly anxiety-related absences.
Understanding the underlying causes of these diseases is key to effective intervention, as evidenced by the positive outcomes reflected in these health statistics. This demonstrates the impact of sustained and proactive public health initiatives.