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Fit For Work EuropeThe Work Foundation

Fit EU Blog

Discourse on work and wellbeing in the EU


Fit for Work – Timing is Everything!

Work is good for your health. Whilst this is now widely documented and accepted, it is not a concept that most workers appreciate until they are unfortunate enough to experience a period of absence from the work environment due to a musculoskeletal disease (MSD).

Sadly, in Ireland as well as mainland Europe too, a significant number of workers will face this experience. In Ireland, MSD’s are  the single biggest contributor to workplace absenteeism accounting for over 7m lost days per annum and a staggering cost to the exchequer of over €750m, not to mention the lost productivity and socio-economic impact on the family. Most people want to work and these days most people need to work. Yet most are not prepared to ensure a speedy return, and sadly their employers are not equipped to facilitate their prompt and healthy return to work.

It seems that during the good times, which Ireland experienced from the mid 90’s to about 2007 and in typical Irish fashion have  even christened it “The Celtic Tiger”, we forgot what was important and rode the economic wave. Hindsight is 20:20 vision they say, but these were the times when we should have ensured the employees’ environment had sufficient preventative measures in place but also a proper intervention policy in place that ensured that when an employee was absent due to an MSD, they were given the correct intervention and a timely return to work, even if this was a phased return, was possible. The longer an employee stays out of work without appropriate and timely intervention, the more likely that this employee will experience long-term absence.

As an organisation passionate about the health and wellbeing of the 1 in 5 people in Ireland that have arthritis, Arthritis Ireland sees the current economic depression as an opportunity to advocate for early intervention policies to be present in every single employer in the country. Ironically, these tough times have forced our government to focus on cost cutting and savings, and it is precisely for this reason why they should also be taking a serious look at the Fit for Work programme that we are now developing in Ireland.

Gone are the days when a charity enters the office of a government minister with a long wish list in one hand and a begging bowl in the other. We are living in more realistic times and we see our organisation playing a serious role in the national agenda of getting this country back on its feet and competitive again. The current government, in office for exactly one year now, has started the debate that employers should take up the bill of employee absence and shift the cost from state to the employer. Whilst this can be viewed as one solution to reducing the exchequer bill, it is simply a means of shifting the bill from one side of the house to the other, with arguably a danger of making Ireland Inc less competitive given that at least 50% of companies in Ireland are small to medium size enterprises.

The Fit for Work programme could play a significant role in ensuring a healthy workforce and also delivering cost savings to the exchequer. So perhaps there is a compromise between the employer taking up some of the costs whilst the government also  focusing on savings by implanting a Fit for Work strategy already presented to them in 2011. It is early days in this debate but a possible solution could be found in the employer establishing an early intervention policy and working with the employee to effect a successful return to work, say within a 2 month period, after which the employer then starts to pick up an element of the cost.  This could provide a strong incentive for the employer to act quickly through early and appropriate intervention whilst allowing a period of grace before any of the social welfare costs are incurred by the employer.

We need only look to the evidence across the Irish sea where The Royal Mail’s fit for work solution has delivered savings of over €270m for an investment of €40m. The Royal Mail knows that for every £1 invested in fit for work, a return of £5 is guaranteed. So far in Ireland we have begun the preparation work in anticipation of eventually working with our stakeholders and government to convince them of this real opportunity that exists if they act now. Part of this preparation was the creation of a high level coalition that will act as an advisory board of sorts that will provide expert input into creating a Fit for Work environment. This coalition is a multi-stakeholder group comprising employee and employer representatives; primary and secondary care health professionals, industry partners such as Abbott and Irish Life Corporate who are the biggest players in the provision of salary protection  schemes. There is representation from the relevant health professional societies such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and the school of occupational health. Our health and safety authority is present and active and we hope to shortly produce a business case, produced by our economist on the coalition that will strongly argue that the Fit for Work approach will result in significant  savings to the exchequer, a healthier workforce and a more competitive country.

Ireland still has the youngest population in western Europe, so we have an opportunity to address this issue before the ageing process brings with it extra demands on the health system, our social welfare system and the population health as a whole. Never  has there been a better case for getting the timing right on this!

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 19th, 2012 at 4:35 pm and is filed under Early Intervention, Europe, Health Economics, Health Policy, Labour policy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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