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A call to action: Occupational health in Ireland

By Dr Robert Ryan - 25th Nov 2022

Occupational health

Our recently launched strategy sets out the value of occupational health for workers, employers, businesses, and wider society in Ireland

The way we work has changed dramatically and occupational health (OH) will play a vital role in addressing the new, complex, and evolving challenges of the future of work. We are uniquely positioned to empower safe and equitable workplaces, which benefit individuals, businesses, and society more widely. However, the profession must be supported to do so.

On Friday 11 November, the Faculty of Occupational Medicine at the RCPI launched its strategy entitled: Advocating for the Value of Occupational Health in Ireland – A call to action to our members and stakeholders. The strategy was supported by a range of groups including Ibec, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the HSE. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar welcomed the strategy with a video message of support. He said: “I want to congratulate the Faculty of Occupational Medicine for its work in producing this excellent strategy; thank you all for your work in raising awareness of occupational health.”

The strategy sets out the value of occupational health for workers, employers, businesses, and wider society in Ireland. The many benefits are identified and inform an action plan for occupational health professionals to engage with a range of work and health stakeholders to achieve the goal of providing universal access to good quality occupational health services.

An ageing workforce, and evolving models of work, rapid technological advancements, emerging novel public health risks and the climate crisis, all require advanced occupational health approaches and re-evaluation of statutory and organisational support for workers.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus. Occupational health professionals provided specialist advice to employers, workers and governments, assisting with the effective management of the crisis. We are uniquely qualified to navigate the future of work and we must be prepared to rise to the challenge, as it continues to evolve.

What is the value of occupational health?

Evidence of the wide-ranging value of occupational health is acknowledged. Trained and accredited OH professionals deliver quality evidence-based medical and psychosocial support for employee health and wellbeing and organisational effectiveness.

Occupational health supports individual health and ability to work, contributing to earning capacity, dignity, self-esteem, and lifespan. Occupational health improves business productivity, decreases medical and associated costs, and can enhance a company’s corporate image, as well as talent retention and recruitment. Occupational health contributes to wider society by improving local competitiveness and public health and reducing inequality.

Work-related ill health in Ireland remains a significant burden for individuals, employers, the State and society, which will be further exacerbated by the rising cost of living. Some 7.1 million DALY (disability-adjusted life years) are lost in the EU as a result of work-related injury and illness. And this individual disadvantage also has economic ramifications. For example, in most European countries, work-related cancer accounts for €119.5 billion or 0.8 per cent of the EU’s GDP.

Multiple studies show that access to paid sick leave, which can be vital to recovery and ability to undertake treatment, gives rise to significant inequalities. Part-time workers, particularly those in small organisations and those with less than five years’ service, took less paid sick leave than equivalent full-time staff in 2021, according to a Central Statistics Office survey. Also, full-time employees in smaller organisations took less paid sick leave than those in larger organisations. It showed 20.6 per cent of workers took paid sick leave and 6.3 per cent took sick leave without pay over a 12-month period.

According to the most recent European Working Conditions Survey (2015), 52 per cent of workers reported continuing to work while they were sick, and 19 per cent said they did not feel they would be able to do their current job or a similar role up until the age of 60 and beyond.

A striking 21 per cent of Irish employees who completed the same survey felt that their health or safety was at risk because of their work. 

Why now?

Informed, evidence-based occupational health solutions are vital to addressing these issues. Good work and good health are interchangeable and the state of work in Irish society is changing dramatically and constantly evolving. So too are the challenges such as: Multigenerational and ageing workforce; digital systems and remote working; evolving contracting models, increasing transient and precarious employment; increasing workplace stress; a volatile employment market; and an emerging culture of working to enjoy a more wholesome life.

Looking to the future

Future proofing requires widescale recognition of the timely need to evaluate current provision and future needs for occupational health in Ireland and a commitment to support evidence-based, accredited quality OH practitioners and services. Now is the time to engender a sense of urgency around occupational health.

Aligned to this we must work to increase awareness of the full OH offering and value to individuals, organisations and society.

We are committed to increasing the representation of our membership across occupational health advocacy through key groups and initiatives. Longer term, our action plan is driving us towards universal OH access.

We will create a Faculty of Occupational Medicine infrastructure to support our advocacy, initiate engagement with key stakeholders, and work with them to build on and implement our strategy over time.

Right now, we are calling on others who value safe and equitable workplaces to:

  • Generate evidence, drive awareness, and advocate for the value of OH in Ireland.
  • Encourage accreditation of practitioners, and assimilation of evidence-based practices.
  • Advocate for policy and legislative enhancements towards universal access to occupational health.

This call to action extends to the occupational health community, medical and education communities more widely, Government and allied organisations, the legal community, employers, and employer and employee representative groups and associations to support this recharging of occupational health in Ireland. Let’s take advocacy for occupational health seriously and let’s take it forward together.

We each have a role to play and everyone will reap the rewards.

Occupational health

The full strategy can be accessed on the RCPI website.

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