Outi’s story: It is my passion to help the world of work understand those of us with varying capacities for work

Career story

It would have been easier for me to simply throw in the towel. Although I have gone through more than ten surgical procedures and spent my entire career with a rare disease and chronic pain, I can still say that, even with my partial work ability, entrepreneurship has provided me with opportunities for growth and development, meaningfulness and experiences of success.

At the very beginning, I wanted to become Knight Rider. With the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, I planned how I would deliver food orders to the elderly from K-market with the talking car, KITT. Pretty progressive for the 1980s! A few years later, I polished lock fittings and counter tops in my parents’ lock shop in Merihaka, Helsinki, to make the place more pleasant. The work was, of course, pointless, as we were next to a coal-fired power plant, but even as a child, I felt the need to put the customer first and to develop new things.

I took my upper secondary school matriculation examination lying on my stomach. I had undergone my first back surgery and familiarised myself with the world of physiotherapy. My experiences with rehabilitation facilities during that time were not that great. The familiar feeling that also this could be done better encouraged me to study as a physiotherapist. After graduation, I felt I had found my dream profession.

In retrospect, becoming an entrepreneur and setting up my own business in a small rural village right after school sounds pretty wild, but it seemed self-evident at the time. After a few years, I employed two physiotherapists and provided facilities for several practitioners.

During my first year as an entrepreneur, it became clear that my hands could not cope with the physical strain. Surgeries did not bring relief, so I altered my job description. I started focusing on Pilates training and rehabilitative activities for the elderly, and left the manual labour for my employees. Despite all the rehabilitation, my health concerns continued to become more serious, and my functional capacity eventually became non-existent.

At the age of under 30, I received a diagnosis of a rare connective tissue disease and a partial disability pension. I was no longer able to walk or work in my profession. I was completing a master’s degree and caring for my grandmother with a memory disorder, I had three small children, two horses and two dogs, surgeries to stabilise both of my thumbs, several bouts of pneumonia and a miscarriage.

All this was followed by a period of darkness, and I am still not sure how I managed to survive. When I was seeking help for mental distress, I noticed that the health care services did not understand the psychological implications of losing your ability to work. After many ups and downs, I trained as a solution-oriented psychotherapist and work counsellor. I was in my dream profession again.

Part-time work provides a path to a meaningful life

As the well-known saying suggests, there is a point where the straw breaks the camel’s back. I have personally experienced this several times – owing to my own foolishness – and later in my career, I have supported others who have gone through a similar experience. I have helped others find themselves and their own path to the world of work, and sometimes also to accept the fact that the path can no longer be found.

Perseverance is often offered as an answer to help people overcome difficulties. This is hard for me to swallow. In my case, it has been, above all, about flexibility and creativity. If I cannot do one thing, I will find a way to do another. You need courage and skill to keep lifting yourself up over and over again and to carry on along your journey.

I have had, and will always have, many periods during which I am completely unable to work. Part-time work has rarely brought great economic relief, but it provides a path to a meaningful life, social interaction and the feeling that I am not going to waste. I have always been studying for, quite literally, the last 24 years even when I have been forced to lie in bed. This has provided me with quite a lot of competence and ability to change my perspective.

Work has always been very important to me. The most difficult thing about disability is that it is not always possible to work, and sometimes you simply need to rest. Although I can do a lot for my work ability, I have been forced to accept that my illness is incurable and I cannot make myself painless or symptomless.

The best way to support work ability is to give priority to things outside of work. This may sound easy for some, but for me, this has been extremely difficult and required persistent practice. Nowadays, I first mark things that support my work ability, such as physiotherapy, riding and days off, in the calendar, and reserve appointments for my customers only thereafter. The fact that I enjoy my work tremendously makes this difficult. Sometimes I still do too much and have to put myself back together again.

My passion is to help the world of work to understand those of us with varying capacities for work and to see our potential. My greatest source of pride is that, as a result of years of work, I have built a model that describes the psychological understanding of clients with partial work ability. I dream about Finland where anyone who wants to work can work according to their own ability. Rarely have I met anyone who does not want to work. Almost always, the main issue is that our system is not flexible enough. A person’s work ability is, in fact, not stable. The entire world of work should be examined in a completely new light if we want to harness the enormous potential of those with partial work ability.

My career path, marked by illness, has provided me with unusually unique expertise and taken me to places I have dreamed of. It has also caused shame and been extremely painful and economically unprofitable. I have been able to do rewarding work, to develop and invent new things. The stories shared by my customers and their success have supported me through tough times.

I call myself a multitasker with expertise in work ability. Without the path I have taken, this would not be possible.

Outi Kainunkangas
Silmuja Oy