Ready for work also means being ‘fit for work’

On Friday, 21st November, the ‘Fit for Work’ coalition outlined at a press conference how a coordinated plan by the Government and health and business groups could save the exchequer millions and help many workers dealing with difficult illnesses, which affect all age groups, including graduates, writes Fergal Browne.

The ‘Fit for Work’ coalition has called on the HSE and the Department of Social Protection to work with them to create a national programme for early intervention in combating workplace absence caused by musculoskeletal disease (MSD), warning that such conditions affect people at all stages of their working life.

L-R: Kara McGann (Ibec), Aoife Weller (graduate and rheumatoid arthritis patient), Dr Don Thornhill (Fit for Work Ireland) & Dr John McDermott (GP & Occupational Health Specialist)

L-R: Kara McGann (Ibec), Aoife Weller (graduate and rheumatoid arthritis patient), Dr Don Thornhill (Fit for Work Ireland) & Dr John McDermott (GP & Occupational Health Specialist)

The request came as the working group, which is a coalition of 16 groups including Arthritis Ireland, Ibec and HSE Primary Care, highlighted how the exchequer could save €55 million in reduced absenteeism and decreased illness benefit payments.

Seven million working days are lost a year in Ireland due to absence and ill health because of musculoskeletal diseases (MSDs) alone, an umbrella term covering over 200 conditions including arthritis, back pain and tendonitis.

MSDs remain the most commonly reported cause of absence from work in Ireland, costing the state €275 million per year in illness benefit payments alone. MSD problems are common. 50% of all workers experience back pain each year and 80% of all adults will suffer from it at some stage in their lifetime.

Chair of the Fit for Work Ireland Coalition and Chairperson of the National Competitiveness Council, Dr. Don Thornhill, said: “Tackling absenteeism is a no-brainer opportunity for the Government to claw back around €55m in Exchequer savings. The solution is simple – a national early intervention plan needs to be drawn up and implemented to make a 20% saving of the total MSD illness benefit bill.”

It is estimated that as approximately 5% of graduates entering the workforce may be suffering from a musculoskeletal injury, with environments such as those in the IT and finance sectors not as benign as many believe, according to John McDermott, GP and Occupational Health Specialist. “Quite often, the onset of these conditions can be slow and insidious, so it’s important that people are aware of the risks, whether they are a graduate entering the workplace or someone at a later stage of their career.”

Personal experience

Aoife Weller (26) has rheumatoid arthritis, which is when all of your joints from your jaw to your toes become swollen. “Basically, your body just starts attacking yourself”, she says.

The disease developed rapidly when she was just 18, just as she was starting an Arts degree in Maynooth University.

Despite her illness she finished her degree and began an administrative role in a start-up company in Mullingar.

She originally tried to hide the illness from her employer. “It was very difficult to hide it. I found it hard to walk. Even the normal things in the office were difficult, let alone the 40+ hours in the week. It’s hard to keep going at the same level as everyone else.’

She was constantly sick with colds, flu and infections due to her compromised immune system, a result of the medication she was taking for her illness. She lasted nine months before a particularly bad onset of her condition, which meant she was unable to move and in constant pain and she was hospitalised for several weeks. It continues to happen several times a year. “It’s a very, very painful time”, she says.

After she returned to work she admitted her problem to her employer. He was supportive of her situation, moving her shifts to later hours as arthritis is generally worse in the mornings, locating her desk closer to the bathroom, her work station was ergonomically corrected and she was provided with a plug-in radiator beside her desk.

Unfortunately though, as business picked up in the company, so did Aoife’s stress levels. “As anybody with an illness will tell you, stress is very detrimental.”

She made the decision to leave the job after attempts to allow her work from home or part-time proved unviable. “Perhaps with early intervention or seeing an occupational health therapist, there could of being a chance I could have stayed in that job,” says Aoife. 77% of unemployed participants in a recent Arthritis Ireland survey said they lost or had to give up their job due to MSD.

Under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011 employers cannot discriminate on the grounds of disability, but they are under no legal obligation to recruit or retain a person who is not fully competent or capable of undertaking the duties attached to a job.  However, they must take appropriate steps to accommodate the needs of employees and prospective employees with disabilities.

At the moment Aoife both volunteers and works with Arthritis Ireland to help other people in a similar situation to her own. She’s looking for other work as well but remains realistic. “It has to be part-time work, because I’d need the time to rest. I know my limitations”, she says.


Arthiritis Ireland have published a free guide to download for employers and for employees on this issue.

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