Päivi’s story: A psychologist able to work – how I built my career once and then built it again

My choice of career was sealed at the age of 14 when I found a book called ‘Who am I?’. It looked like a tacky self-help guide, but I decided to take a closer look. The work was a compilation of famous and important studies in psychology, and in particular in social psychology, from Milgram's obedience study to Zimbardo's prison study. So this kind of thing was actually being investigated? I was sold on it at once.

Psychology was completely new territory for me, but I soon found my way to the behavioural sciences shelf in the library. When I entered upper secondary school, I obviously chose psychology as an optional subject, but I largely spent the lessons being smart, as I had already studied most of the topics beforehand.

After secondary school, came a gap year, then a second, then a third. I didn't get in to study psychology, but I didn't get in to study anything else either. My parents were tearing their hair out thinking that their daughter  would never amount to anything. Then the TE Office offered me the opportunity to take part in a career guidance course for young people. I went there for fun, and the training was led by a psychologist. I had previously thought that I would become a psychology researcher, but now another idea began to take root in my mind. What if I became a career counsellor?

A career as a psychologist opens up

After the next application, I finally got to study. I also gained a teacher’s pedagogical qualification, as I thought it might be useful if I applied to become a career counsellor. My first job was as a substitute school psychologist, but I kept on seeking work and was appointed as a career counsellor at Amiedu Adult Education Centre. I was happy, proud of myself and excited that my dreams were coming true.

Seven years of career counselling flashed by. I thought that maybe it would be good for me to see more than just the world of adult education. I started looking for a new job, and sent an open application to MPS, a consultancy firm. I knew that they had been looking for psychology consultants a couple of months earlier. The work would be mainly recruitment-related, but it would also be possible to do coaching, for example.

Almost as soon as my open application had been rung up in MPS's recruitment system, they called me. After the interview and aptitude assessment, I got to write an employment contract. Working as a consultant was another chance to grow, but it was by trial and error that I got ahead. I started to get my own clients, and progressed to becoming a development manager in charge of outplacement coaching. It was the perfect job for me because I loved trying new things, making improvements and producing content.

Life is a merry-go-round

In August 2018, I found myself thinking that I was definitely living the best time of my life. I was excited about my hobbies, my family was fine and I felt fulfilled at work. One cause for delight was being elected as a member of the operational board of an international outplacement training network. This allowed me to strengthen my international work experience and share my knowledge widely.

The following month, I came down with the flu. That's when strange symptoms started, which eventually disabled my arms and legs and caused long periods of sick leave for me. A year later, I received the diagnosis. I had chronic fatigue syndrome or ME disease (myalgic encephalomyelitis).  I couldn’t use my legs and arms and I was very tired, but my concentration began to improve with time and medication.

This started a new period in my working life. Sometimes I would go back to work part-time, and at other times I was on long sick leave. My responsibilities at work started to be transferred to others. In the end, my employer and I agreed that I could not return to my job as a development manager. That, and the loss of my international network, is what I've most regretted in terms of work.

Rethinking working life

Eventually, I found myself in a situation where I had to rebuild my working life from scratch. Fixed part-time work didn't seem to fit and I had to think about how to get social security for any sick leave I might have to take. I applied for a part-time disability pension, but it was not granted.

I agreed with my employer that we would make a zero-hours contract and I would work as much as my health would allow. Thanks to medication that I found, I started to feel better and was able to work more. I started looking for more employers who could offer me hourly work, as I couldn't get enough hours from a single employer. For social security reasons, I couldn’t set up my own business.

It happened several times that an employer would have recruited me either full-time as a paid employee or part-time as a self-employed person. I found myself in a funny situation. I had more ability and willingness to work, and there would have been plenty of work, but I couldn't take it because I couldn't be self-employed. In the end, I found two more employers for whom paying an hourly rate was not a problem.

That's how I was able to dive into an area that was new to me, occupational health psychology. Of course I was nervous. How could I deal with people who were exhausted or otherwise feeling bad at work when, for me, work has been a source of well-being? Could I identify with their situation and be empathetic enough? My fears were unfounded, as I found that I was able to slip into the role of an occupational health psychologist quite easily. I also found that meeting with me really helped people in their situations.

Work becomes a valuable asset when your ability to work is in the balance. It brings a rhythm to life, something to do and usually valuable and important colleagues. Although I don't have the same career as before I became ill, I'm still grateful that I've found a way to work as a disabled person partially able to work – and in my own field.