Sick days cost 750m annually

  • Joanne McCarthy

Half of all sick days from work in Ireland are caused by musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), including back pain, work-related upper limb disorder and arthritis, costing the economy €750 million annually, according to a new report.

However, this need not be the case. Early diagnosis and intervention could significantly improve the health of Irish workers and reduce the burden on the Government’s health and disability benefits.

The report, Fit For Work?, found that spending on illness and disability benefits increased by 500% between 1998 and 2007. 

The report makes key recommendations to the Government as well as to employers, employees and GPs. It presented evidence that work is good for your health and adopting an approach that focuses on capacity rather than incapacity is also better for the employees who suffer from any of these conditions.

Some of the key recommendations of the report are:

- The introduction of a ‘fit note’ rather than a ‘sick note’ to assist employees dealing with MSDs to remain in the workforce for their own wellbeing and health.

- Shifting focus on capacity rather than incapacity.  Return to work plans should be formalised with employees, taking into consideration that they may not be 100% fit for work.

- Employees should play an active part in the management of the condition. They should find out more about the condition, watch for patterns in pain or fatigue and learn to minimise the impact on functioning and mood.

- Healthcare professionals need to intervene as early as possible. Evidence suggests that long periods away from work are usually bad for MSD patients. Early action, preferably with the patient and their employer, can help to achieve a balance between an individual’s need for respite and their need to work.

The report also stressed that the shortage of rheumatologists in this country means that people who should be working are not getting appropriate treatment. The removal of qualified and highly skilled workers with MSDs from the Irish workforce will result in a lack of productivity and competitiveness, according to the report.

“Work is unambiguously good for our health. Fit For Work? highlights the huge impact MSDs have on the economy and general health of our workforce. Early intervention and access to the right kind of treatments are crucial. In some instances Irish patients with MSDs can wait as long as four years for treatment,” said Prof Oliver Fitzgerald, leading rheumatologist and chairman of Arthritis Ireland.

“This is particularly compelling when you consider rheumatoid arthritis, one of the MSDs listed in the report, will result in irreversible damage if left untreated for this length of time,” he added.

Today’s launch is the first stage in a European-wide initiative that will see several independent country-specific Fit For Work? reports.  Ireland will see a three-phase campaign that will target employees, employers, GPs and policy makers. Further roll out will include the development of a range of tools that will help all people with MSDs to be as fit for work as possible.

For more on the lack of arthritis care in Ireland, see our feature here.

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