Social workers’ decisions affecting the lives of their clients are partly based on previous documentation of their circumstances. A doctoral dissertation promoted the standardisation of practices and training for social workers.


The preparation of documents on client interaction is one of the key duties of social workers. The information stored in the documents is used to plan, assess and decide on activities affecting clients.

Aino Kääriäinen of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences analysed the documentation practices of social workers in her doctoral dissertation. She set out to establish the significance of documentation for the formation of information and professional practice in the area of social work focusing on child protection. Kääriäinen explored her data from three perspectives: 1) How were the documents written? 2) What information did the documents contain? 3) Why were the documents written as they were?

The research data were compiled from a client database that included notes and custody decisions from 1989 to 2000 by social workers involved in child protection. Documents relating to 20 children of varying ages and their families were randomly selected for the study. The total data comprised more than 1,600 pages.

Research findings: Documents present a multitude of voices

Documents written in the context of social work had not previously been analysed from a structural perspective. The analysis showed that the texts present a multitude of voices, or the views and opinions of several people. Instead of social workers writing down their own views, they recorded the speech of those participating in meetings in the form of a dialogue. Such polyphonous documents highlight the perspectives of various parties, while eliminating the professional perspective of the author, that is, the social worker.

The research also demonstrated that previously written texts guide the author: the texts analysed were stylistically and structurally very similar.

The preparation of documents is key for understanding and maintaining a shared understanding of the profession. The texts are read and used to make plans to support clients. In social work, texts are tools of the trade.

Research impact: New legislation and projects for structured documentation

Published in 2003, the study contributed to our understanding of the significance of documents and documentation for social services decisions. Documentation is now increasingly guided through legislation, development projects and professional training.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health carried out a technology project for social services from 2005 to 2011 to develop the technology and content of client information necessary in social services. The key objective was to create tools for documenting client interaction and ways to standardise the processing of client information. The project also included the publication of a professional guide on the functional, ethical and legal principles of client documentation.

Because documents concerning social services clients are not subject to any specific provisions other than those relating to confidentiality, new legislation was drafted to promote the appropriate processing and use of information on social services clients. No guidance based on specific laws and regulations previously existed concerning the preparation of social services documents.

Legislation on social services documentation was also required for the establishment of a national electronic information system for social services and the related electronic archive of documents pertaining to social services clients. These services constitute the national basic information resource in social services.

The legislation was implemented by establishing the Kansa-koulu I and Kansa-koulu II projects (National Institute for Health and Welfare) to train Finnish social services professionals in using structured documentation. Structured documentation means the storage of information in documents in a predetermined format, such as in the case of doctors writing prescriptions.

Aino Kääriäinen, the researcher who carried out the study, has produced teaching material for the Kansa-koulu projects. This material had been used by some 25,000 social work professionals by the end of 2018.

Further information on the research:

Kääriäinen, Aino (2003) Lastensuojelun sosiaalityö asiakirjoina. Dokumentoinnin ja tiedonmuodostuksen dynamiikka (“Social work for child protection. The dynamics of documentation and information formation”). University of Helsinki

Laaksonen, et al. (2011) Asiakastyön dokumentointi sosiaalihuollossa. Opastusta asiakastiedon käyttöön ja  kirjaamiseen (“Documentation of customer interaction in social services. Guidance for using and recording client information”). National Institute for Health and Welfare

Aino Kääriäinen’s research, projects and other activities

Finnish social workers are in a worse situation than their Nordic colleagues. Research at the University of Helsinki helped highlight their problems and had an impact on the child protection legislation amended in 2014.


Is there a special Nordic model of social work? To answer this question, the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science conducted a study together with Lund University in 2012.

The objective was to produce general information on the topic and compare the job situation of social workers in the Nordic countries. The researchers also explored the attitudes and workload of social workers. They published their first findings in 2012.

Research findings: The situation of Finnish social workers is much more difficult than that of their Nordic counterparts

Previous national reports and studies had indicated that Finnish social workers have heavy workloads, but it was seen as part and parcel of the demanding nature of social work.

However, when the Nordic countries were compared with the same measures, the researchers found that Finnish social workers had a much heavier workload than their Nordic colleagues, although the work itself is just as demanding in all countries. Finnish social workers also felt they were subjected to more conflicting work-related demands than their counterparts in other Nordic countries.

In addition, the research established that the social workers specialising in child protection had the heaviest workload of all, which made it difficult for them to personally meet their child clients.

The study also pinpointed potential factors explaining the differences between Finland and its neighbouring countries. Staff turnover and the number of clients per social worker is much higher in Finland than other Nordic countries.

Research impact: Analysis of the problem and material for legislative work

The publication of the research findings in Finland in 2012 coincided with an extensive discussion in the Finnish media concerning social work and child protection. The discussion was sparked by a case in which a child referred to the child protection authorities in Helsinki was killed by her family.

An article published by the researchers in the Yhteiskuntapolitiikka journal provided a range of perspectives for social discussion, including a review of the structures of social work that made the tragic event in Helsinki possible.

The researchers stated that the problems of social work cannot be resolved without addressing the employees’ workload. Some social workers specialising in child protection simply have too many clients. Structural measures are necessary to resolve structural issues.

The public discussion led to a government agency establishing a working group to review the status of child protection and issue recommendations. The group’s report referred to the results of the Nordic comparison and served as background material when child welfare legislation was amended. The new legislation took effect in 2014.

The new provisions included a requirement that each social worker must personally meet sufficiently often with each of their child clients. Quality recommendations also specified the number of children a single social worker can be responsible for.

Further information on the research:

Saarinen, Arttu; Blomberg, Helena; Kroll, Christian (2012): Liikaa vaadittu? Sosiaalityöntekijöiden kokemukset työnsä kuormittavuudesta ja ristiriitaisuudesta Pohjoismaissa (“Asking too much? Nordic social workers’ experiences of their workload and work-related contradictions”), Yhteiskuntapolitiikka 4/2012

Blomberg, Helena; Kallio, Johanna; Kroll, Christian; Saarinen, Arttu (2015): “Job Stress among Social Workers: Determinants and Attitude Effects in the Nordic Countries”, British Journal of Social Work, Volume 45, Issue 7, 1 October 2015, pp. 2089–2105

Researchers have developed a proofreading application based on open source code, which any user of a small language can download as support for text processing.


Many small languages do not have the same kind of normative written form as, for example, Finnish. When writing a language, the users may use the language very freely, which may over time lead to community members no longer understanding each other. This may ultimately lead to the language community breaking apart.

Language technology researchers at the University of Helsinki wanted to develop proofreading software based on open source code, which would allow the users of numerous small languages in the world to access a similar proofreading application to text processing programmes as the users of large languages. Commercial actors, such as Microsoft, develop proofreading software for the latter, but since the number of potential buyers for proofreading software for small languages is limited, they are not interested in developing it.

Proofreading software, which any user can download to their phone, will help to retain language that is understandable to all its users. In other words, researchers aimed to support small language communities.

How the application works: The researchers constructed the technology, the users describe the language.

Between 2008 and 2016 researchers of language technology at the University of Helsinki led by Research Director Krister Lindén ​developed the basic technology required by the proofreading software. The technology used is based on finite-state automata and called Helsinki Finite-State Technology or HFST.

When morphology of a language has been described and proofreading software has been linked with it, the software will compare written text to automata, or a kind of morphological dictionary, and tell if there is something to correct in the text. It will also give correction suggestions.

The source code developed by the researchers is publicly available online, and it can be used for any morphologically described language. Often, a representative of a language community interested in the preservation of the language community will complete the morphological description. Morphology means the kinds of inflections, for example, nouns or verbs take in the language.

Research impact: The software has been used to describe over a hundred languages.

Finite-state technology has been developed since the 1980s and applied to over 100 language descriptions. The tool demo page of the Language Bank of Finland allows you to acquaint yourself with the 50 languages for which the software has been developed. For example, Sami language communities have been very enthusiastic and completed very thorough descriptions of their languages. All four Sami languages now have a downloadable proofreading application based on open source code developed at the University of Helsinki at their disposal.

Also upcoming is a freely available interactive online course to learn the morphological description of languages. It will allow any representative of a small language community to learn to describe their language and consequently gain access to the proofreading software for their language community.

Moreover, Helsinki Finite-State Technology is currently used in teaching the morphology of languages, for example, in Stanford University.


Further information on the research:

Language Bank of Finland online

FIN-CLARIN organisation 

Krister Linden’s publications, projects and other activities

The University of Helsinki’s CoPassion project has coached thousands of people to embrace a more compassionate culture of work.

How does compassion enhance the welfare of workplaces and promote a sense of meaning? In the CoPassion project, a multidisciplinary group featuring theologians, economists, social scientists, philosophers and education experts wanted to focus on how compassion in the workplace could be increased, fostered and put into practice.

They knew from previous research that many features of compassion – such as helping others or fostering an open atmosphere – could boost both wellbeing and performance in the workplace. However, no Finnish researchers had linked these features together and studied them under the umbrella of compassion as a concept.

Research findings: Compassion and co-passion increase wellbeing and innovation

In the project, the researchers approached compassion within companies and workplaces, for example, by organising staff training in emotional skills and studying the impact of the training. They examined compassion reaching outside the companies from the perspectives of corporate responsibility and volunteer work done by the employees during work hours. They also researched compassion between companies and workplaces, particularly in terms of the spread of ideas and innovation.

The research demonstrated that compassion has both quantitative and qualitative benefits for boosting competitiveness: people feel that fostering a more humane culture in the workplace increases occupational wellbeing, job satisfaction and innovation.

The CoPassion research group defined compassion as consisting of awareness, or the ability to recognise and share another person’s situation; the emotion evoked by the awareness, meaning empathy, sympathy and the resulting motivation to help the other person; and action to benefit another person.

In addition, the research group created an entirely new concept which is becoming an established term: co-passion, myötäinto, means empathising with positive emotions, taking action to help others and sharing joy.

As part of its research, the CoPassion project arranged a total of six three-hour emotional skill interventions for people in leadership positions at a variety of public and private organisations. The emotional skill trainings increased the awareness of emotions and their impact in the workplace, featured exercises to help deal with both positive and negative emotions, and suggested practical methods for managing emotions and emotional expression in the workplace.

The research group saw statistically significant changes after the training sessions: the leadership staff who participated in the interventions experienced more compassion and had better compassion skills. In a particularly interesting twist, the employees also reported that these leaders were better at servant leadership and more supportive of their employees’ autonomous work.

These changes were reported through a questionnaire (before, immediately after and six months after the training sessions) as well as in interviews. A control group was also used, consisting of people working in the same community who did not participate in the training.

Innovation was studied in group interviews with people from various organisations and workplaces. The key finding was that innovation cannot be generated by action alone, such as brainstorming sessions. The roots of innovation are in compassion: both in the compassionate attitude of individuals towards themselves and their coworkers and in a compassionate culture of the workplace which also radiates outside the organisation.

Communities which feel psychologically safe are more innovative. In a compassionate and co-passionate workplace, employees dare to be creative and toy with new ideas. It is also important for employees to know that they will not be abandoned when they need help at work.

In this way, the research served to deconstruct the conflict between ethical and productive workplaces. Promoting empathy and compassion in the workplace is not just ethical, it can also have a positive impact on the results of a company by fostering innovation.

Research impact: Recognising the power of compassion in the workplace

The CoPassion project generated more than just new information: it also created training and coaching products that have a real impact on workplaces. Since the launch of the project, trainings and lectures on compassion and co-passion have already been organised in dozens of organisations.

The project also developed a workshop model which can help workplaces to generate and boost co-passion and innovation.

One publicly available, tangible research result is the book Myötätunnon mullistava voima (2017), which provides information to help both individuals and communities to foster a more compassionate work culture. The plan is to store recordings of the trainings on an online platform and to apply for certification for the recordings.

The project lectures have attracted more than 2,000 listeners interested in the prerequisites and impacts of a more compassionate work culture. Themes of compassion have also become a prominent part of public debate as the human aspects of work are highlighted.

CoPassion has been funded by Business Finland (formerly Tekes).

Further information:

Director of the CoPassion team, Professor of Church Sociology Anne Birgitta Pessi

The revolutionary power of compassion (CoPassion)

Business Finland