Succeeding amid the ever-increasing demands of working life requires sisu – a Finnish concept that denotes a unique blend of hardiness, phlegmatic determination and gritty courage. In a study funded by the Academy of Finland, VTT and the University of Helsinki delved into the essence and significance of sisu in areas such as wellbeing and coping in working life. This study is the first of its kind: to our knowledge, sisu has never been studied so systematically and multi-methodologically.
Today's employees have a lot to cope with: they must be able to withstand stress and uncertainty, work in a self-directed manner, continually develop themselves, and think creatively. A better understanding of sisu can help us identify what kind of people succeed under these conditions and whether people can develop these gritty characteristics.
VTT and the University of Helsinki's Department of Psychology analysed the concept of sisu to discover what it is, how it could be measured, and how it is reflected in people's behaviour, performance and wellbeing. Sisu was studied with the aid of questionnaires, laboratory tests and physiological measurements. For example, individuals' stress reactions and performance were measured during tasks that demanded true grit.
Good sisu, bad sisu
Sisu turned out to be a multidimensional characteristic. At its best, it enables employees to tap into their hidden strengths and progress tenaciously towards their goals, even when this means outdoing themselves. At its worst, it can also lead to harmful behavioural and operating models. For example, it can make people accept overly difficult challenges, demand too much of themselves and their loved ones, or plough stubbornly onwards in the wrong direction.
"In our study, we confirmed that self-assessed sisu consists of several sub-characteristics that can be encapsulated in two different characteristics: beneficial sisu and harmful sisu," says University Researcher Ilmari Määttänen from the University of Helsinki. These characteristics can be measured using a questionnaire developed during the study. The questionnaire can identify the levels of a person's various sisu-related characteristics, thereby improving self–awareness and opening the door to personal development. It can also promote recovery and wellbeing at work, which helps to prevent burnout.
Sisu impact indicators
The study analysed how sisu is linked to a person's biosignals and brain activity during moments of acute stress. This was measured in laboratory tests in which people performed demanding tasks or had to immerse their hand in ice water. The results were modelled with the aid of machine learning.
"For example, the individuals assessed their degree of agitation after completing a problem-solving task. The individuals who reported feeling the most agitated had sweaty hands and heated brain activity during the test, and also scored highly for harmful sisu," said Senior Scientist Johanna Närväinen from VTT.
Measurements were also taken at people's workplaces and in everyday contexts. Participants' physical loading and recovery from stress were measured for a period of three weeks with the aid of measuring devices, fitness trackers and Moodmetric smart rings. Additional data about the day's events and participant's mood was collected using a daily questionnaire.
Potential future projects could analyse whether sisu changes over time or examine the cognitive strategies associated with sisu.