The European Week for Safety and Health at Work begins on Monday the 20th October 2014. The theme of this year’s event is “Healthy workplaces manage stress”.
This initiative comes at a particularly time for the Irish workforce. Internal government documents have recently revealed that the cost of sick leave in the public sector alone is “unsustainable” and is costing the State about €430 million per annum. Private businesses in Ireland are also severely impacted; a study by employers group IBEC in 2010 revealed that a total of 11 million days are lost to absence each year, costing these businesses as much as €1.5 billion per annum, equating to €818 per employee.
Of particular relevance to the campaign, stress is a key contributor to workplace absenteeism and loss of productivity. Stress is the second most frequently reported work related health problem in Europe and, along with other psychosocial risks, is thought to account for more than half (50–60 %) of all lost working days. And Ireland is not immune; a workplace survey published by Aviva Health Insurance in 2013, for example, revealed that almost three quarters of employees say a pressurised work environment has become the norm, with 55% reporting stress and/or anxiety.
So what can be done to address these issues? Paul McCarthy, CEO of Full Health Medical, an award-winning preventative health management company, believes that the answer lies in employee education and programmes which support employee wellness. “While occupational health has traditionally been focused on minimising the risk of physical hazards to health and safety in a workplace, employers are increasingly recognising the value of having a healthy, motivated and mentally resilient workforce. Research by the Department of Health in the UK has shown that for every £1 spent on wellness programmes, there is an average return on investment of £3.73, including a 34% saving in absenteeism costs”, said Mr. McCarthy, who went on to note that other advantages of these programmes include improved on-the-job decision making and time management, improved workforce morale, and reduction in employee turnover.
Mr. McCarthy believes that the first steps in reducing absenteesism need to be centred around employee education; “if employees don’t understand their current health status, then how are they expected to be proactive in improving it? These days people are constantly being given mixed messages about diet, exercise and other aspects of their health, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to decipher what is best for them individually”.
So should all employees get health screening? Mr. McCarthy admits that there are certainly issues around mass screening, as evidenced by the controversy currently surrounding the NHS Health Check Programme, which targets adults in England between the ages of 40 and 74 with a free health screening every five years. “The reality is that mass, unfiltered screening would simply result in unnecessary workload for an already stretched health service, and in particular would result in an impossible extra burden being placed on GPs. However, there is an argument for targeted screening and, more importantly, education for employees who are missing work on a regular basis. Using targeted screening and education as the first step in a programme of health improvement would benefit both the employee and the business.”
One area in particular where Mr. McCarthy believes significant improvements could be made is within the health service itself. “Sick leave cost the Health Service Executive €223 million in 2012 alone. It is clear that traditional efforts to reduce absenteeism have failed to make any impact on the problem, and perhaps it is time for the HSE, as part of its renewed focus on health and wellbeing, to consider targeted health screening and corporate wellness programmes for its own employees. By taking a proactive approach to addressing these problems within its own workforce, the HSE would point the way for other employers in Ireland”.
The European Week for Safety and Health at Work begins on Monday the 20th October. Further information can be found at https://osha.europa.eu/en/campaigns/index_html.