What is functioning?


Functioning refers to people’s physical, psychological and social capacity to cope with the day-to-day activities they find meaningful and necessary – work, studies, leisure time and hobbies, self-care and care for others – in the environment in which they live. 

People’s functioning is dependent on the positive or negative impacts of the environment. People’s functioning can be supported and their coping in their day-to-day lives improved with

  • factors related to housing and the living environment
  • support from other people 
  • different services.

Functioning is also described as a balance between capabilities, the living and operating environment, and the individual’s personal goals.

Functioning can be described using 

  • the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF)
  • the dimensions of functioning.

Functioning in the ICF

ICF is an international classification of functioning, disability and health based on a biopsychosocial model. ICF describes an individual’s functioning comprehensively as a dynamic space consisting of the combined effect of the person’s health and individual and environmental factors. 

ICF describes functioning on three levels: 

  • as body structures and functions
  • as performance partly built on these, and 
  • as participation in different life situations and community life.

As ICF is a classification, it enables organising the description of functioning hierarchically into clearly determined main and sub-categories.

ICF classification and potential applications (THL) 

Dimensions of functioning

Functioning is a multidimensional concept structured in several different ways. The dimensions of functioning are interlinked and connected to the requirements and preconditions of the environment as well as the individual’s health and other personal characteristics. Functioning is often divided into the following dimensions (domains):

  • physical functioning 
  • mental functioning
  • cognitive functioning 
  • social functioning.

Good physical, mental and social functioning and an environment supporting these help people feel well, find their place in society, cope with working life and manage independently in their day-to-day lives. 

Physical functioning

Physical functioning refers to people’s physical preconditions to cope with the day-to-day tasks that are important to them. The physiological properties of the body important for physical functioning include:

  • muscular strength and endurance 
  • endurance fitness 
  • joint mobility
  • control of bodily positions and movements, and
  • the functions of the central nervous system that coordinate these.

Physical functioning manifests as people's ability to be physically active and move their bodies. Sense perceptions, such as vision and hearing, are often included in the domain of physical functioning.

Mental functioning

Mental functioning refers to the resources people have for coping with everyday challenges and crisis situations. Mental functioning is also related to life management, mental health and mental welfare, and covers functions related to emotions and thinking, including: 

  • the ability to receive and process information
  • the ability to feel
  • the ability to experience and form perceptions of one’s self and the surrounding world
  • the ability to plan one’s life and make related decisions and choices.

Mental functioning also includes personality and coping with the challenges of the social environment. The ability to make informed decisions and regard the future and the surrounding world with realistic confidence is also part of good mental functioning.

Cognitive functioning

Cognitive functioning is a mutual effort between the different areas of information processing that enable people to cope in their day-to-day lives. Cognitive functions are functions related to the reception, processing, storage and use of information and can include:

  • memory
  • learning
  • concentration
  • attention
  • perception
  • orientation
  • information processing
  • problem solving
  • executive functions
  • linguistic activities.

Social functioning

The domain of social functioning consists of dynamic interactions between individuals, the social network, the environment, the community and society. Among other things, this domain of functioning manifests in interactive situations, as social activity and experiences of inclusion, and includes two examined dimensions:

  • people in their interactive relationships
  • people as active agents, participants in communities and society.