Finland’s emerging work environment: high pressure, long hours, stress and low pay.

I recently took down a post “The rough truth behind the Finnish job market,” just a few days after posting it. In Finland the job market tends to be small, with the startup scene being an area where many of the existing players know each other very well. This blog doesn’t reach much of an audience yet, but it didn’t take long for someone to try to call me out on my experience. Demanding concrete names of companies while voicing a strong disagreement with what I had written. Shouting off that I am doing a disservice, negatively impacting the scene.

The startup community is tight-knit. When I started my job my boss had mentioned that he “knew a lot of people.” This was no lie, he did. Meeting with partners, investors, and heading out to conferences you could see the visible interaction between what one might even consider “old friends.”

I’m still on the market. My peers are still working in the industry. In no way would I be willing to risk their jobs, residence and home by shouting off names. Especially to a stranger on the internet who claims to be part of this tight start-up scene.

Maybe my experience was the exception. I took a job for a startup. My pay was around 1500€ gross. With an interview that emphasized the need for workers who “do not look at the clock” unpaid overtime was strongly implied. In contrast, delivering newspapers could net you a quarter more pay while working half the hours. As I had written, this office job was not the greatest experience.

Is it simply possible that the openings me and my peers have landed were only available due to high turnover related to a poor work environment? To avoid any possible trouble, I took down the post along with all links pointing to it.

Out of curiosity, about a week later I jumped on glassdoor, a site where employees review their employers. Browsing through several Finnish companies I found that review after review was filled with negative employment experiences. Critically one could chalk it up to confirmation bias. We are looking at a review site that might as well be filled with disgruntled employees leaving their old work places. Yet, the amount is staggering, all with similar stories and legitimate complaints. Uncompensated overtime and weekend work show up on more than one occasion.

I encourage you to do a search, check out how many companies have a rating under 3 or even 2. Look through the reviews, even positive reviews come with unsettling practices. A few companies do get glowing reviews – but the way the market is in Finland these days not everyone is skilled enough to pick and choose their ideal workplace.

The following quotes have been lightly edited to keep context while making it a little more difficult to trace the reviews. My point is not to name out specific companies, but more to draw attention to what is becoming a real issue in Finland.

“The worst company I have worked for! No ethics! No product! Spend days writing lies to the world who thinks they have a real product. Everyone is afraid of the boss.”

“threatening behavior when you resign. threatened to contact new boss not to hire. failed to pay bonuses.”

“High pressure. Burn-out is usual business. High-turnover rate. Not family friendly, no time for kids”

“leaving after 9 hrs. met with disapproval, even with no expectation of overtime.”

“hours not compensated… weekend business trips uncompensated.”

“actually a calling job, telemarketing. Company takes advantage of foreigners, as it’s hard to get a job in Finland. At least 3 employees resign every month.”

I could go on, there are pages filled with these comments.

At this point I can only talk from my own experiences, for those that I have spoken with, and a bunch of online reviews. For this reason, don’t take this as what is standard – there needs to be more investigation. It’s hard to tell how wide spread of an issue this is. If in fact these practices are becoming commonplace, then stricter enforcement of labour laws is needed.

Below is the original article that I had written:

The rough truth behind the Finnish job market.

6-weeks’ vacation, decent working hours, and a stress free work environment Finland has created sounds great right? Unfortunately, the reality has become quite different. Unpaid overtime, extended work weeks, and never ending trial periods are a recent and growing phenomenon. The following is based solely on my own experience, as well as that of the classmates I have graduated alongside with.

Before coming to Finland I had a decent degree and some work experience in IT. At this point all that is a bit stale given my choice to hang around here. Here I had worked for Itella (Posti) for quite some time while working on a couple of Master’s. Hands down one of the best jobs I’ve had in my life, good hours, easy going boss, and decent pay and benefits. At some point though, we look up towards that cushy office job. Grass is always greener on the other side. Going to job fairs I finally snagged a couple of interviews.

The first job, right in my field was out in western Finland. I got an offer with the stipulation of an initial four month trial period consisting of mandatory overtime. Salary would be based on the inclusion of overtime. Overtime that would lead the salary to be pretty dismal. I had dug a little deeper to find out that this position had been posted about every four months. Checking out previous employees linkedin and facebook pages I found that this didn’t seem to be an ideal place to be. Quotes such as “good riddance to (company)” or “finally out of (company). The high turnover, and abundant employee disapproval combined with what would be an expensive move simply did not make sense.

The second interview had been for a start-up. Innovative, energetic, and full of “passion”. I was given a task to complete in two weeks in a programming language I had never dealt with. I did it in half a week. Great, so maybe you can complete this next more rigorous task by the same deadline? So laying on the floor in an empty apartment for hours on end on a 256 kbps connection I did my best. I couldn’t do it. I mean, the program did work, but the solution I had created was not quite complete. Rejected soon enough, and onto the next interview.

Yet another start-up. These interviews with start-ups tend to be similar in discussion. I can only assume it’s because similar discussions are being thrown around at incubators, conferences, and investors. The usual questioning of skills is followed by the question of “passion.” The problem I’ve found with “passion” is that it is not so much as about the skill or enjoyment of work, but it often leads to discussions of lower pay and extended hours. When you are looking for a job, you play along, I think most of us do. I got the job.

Within a week I wanted to leave. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t use to office life. It was every Dilbert comic brought to life. I’d go home after work to google a quote, and sure enough I could find at least one comic strip representative of the day. The position was not an IT position. I had been given a list of companies to call, and I would call. No one really seems to like to receive cold calls, and there are plenty of people out there that will let you know so. It was not long before I came to dread the job, every call was just a game of roulette. Partly because I never knew who I was calling, and if I could ever weed myself into talking to the right person. I was a telemarketer.

But as disappointing as it was, the biggest pressure came from the level of micromanagement alongside the expectation to create content after finishing the work day. The most uncomfortable moment had been being asked whether I had kids, in order to judge whether I was up for the challenge. What can you say? Work is scarce, so you tend not to challenge these type of questions.

At this point I had already made the commitment to push through, to get through the temporary contract. My pay was crummy, working twice the hours I did delivering papers for half the pay. At times even less than that.

Yet, a job is a job, and like any other, I would suck it up and do it to the best of my ability.
I will say this, we had a good team, great coworkers. Unfortunately it was easy to see the team go through similar frustrations as I was going through, and for what? The rough market.

I complain to my friends, family, etc. All understood. I’ve got friends going through never ending internships, bussed around work place to workplace to keep from moving into a permanent contract. Another complains as he is pushed to stand around day in and day out at 12 hours a day with not a single mention of overtime. His fear to speak out comes from the multitude of unpaid interns ready to jump at his position. These are not always small companies, but also positions in some of Finland’s industry giants.

No question that our small company had a great product, I would vouch for it any day. Yet, the work culture was not something I could adapt to. I would do my best to stick to no more than an eight-hour work day, while coworkers would push through 10-12 hours a day. From the top, my lack of “passion” was often brought up. Passion. Yes. that’s it. Because the only way to show “passion” in a job is to trade your life in for it. Never an idea I could get comfortable with.

Nearing the end of the contract I pushed myself into other tasks and I went through them as best I could. I would simply look at what our competitors were doing, and think, how can I do better?

Of course, at the time of contract renewal I knew I had to leave. I would say it was due to work culture, but when work culture pushes people beyond their limits it’s an entirely different issue. It’s not like there was much on offer anyway. It would have been an extended trial. Same offer, same environment, same pay.

So what now? Still looking around while trying to grab odd jobs, and hoping to try my luck at setting up a small business. Leaving a steady income means there will be rough times ahead. Was it the right decision? All I can say is that it was a tough one. Figuring out how to pay the rent come next month will be the first challenge. Let’s see how this goes.

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