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Stephen  Bevan

Leadership needed to avert looming crisis in EU workforce health

Authors: Stephen Bevan Stephen Bevan

19 October 2012


This week I have been chairing the 4th Annual Fit for Work Summit in Brussels. The Fit for Work programme is a 35-country study which has been examining the burden of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the health and productivity of working-age people across Europe, Australasia, North America and parts of Asia. Over 200 delegates from across the world spent two days hearing presentations from eminent clinicians, from patients, from policy-makers and from health economists. Their message was clear: MSDs in the workforce cost the EU over 240 billion Euros each year (up to 2% of GDP) and much more can be done to prevent the loss of productivity and the risk of social exclusion which they represent.

We held part of our conference in the European Parliament where we were hosted by Fit for Work Co-President Mrs Antonyia Parvanova, MEP. In her opening address, she reminded delegates that the financial crisis had highlighted how our ‘dash’ for economic growth had sometimes been at the cost of workforce physical and mental health. She also said that, if we were to avoid similar problems in the future, we needed to rethink how we organised work and how productivity growth was achieved.

Dr Roberto Bertollini of WHO Europe reminded us of the prominence of MSDs in the growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) facing most developed economies. He argued that, aside from better preventative public health interventions, leadership was needed to prevent the good work to extend Europeans’ life expectancy from being undermined by parallel reductions in quality of life.

Professor Peter Goldblatt of University College London provided us with evidence of the so-called ‘social gradient’ in health and the strong relationship between ‘good work’ and health outcomes among people of working age. His data shows very clearly that health among people in low-skill jobs with low control are much more likely than those in senior positions to be associated with stress and cardiovascular disease.

In my address, I picked up on the ‘leadership’ question. Given the ‘triple-whammy’ of an ageing workforce, later retirement and the growing burden of chronic illness in Europe’s working-age population, it is hard to fathom why – both at EU and at National level – improving workforce health and productivity is nobody’s job. As a result, the crisis is growing and nothing serious is being done. In the UK, for example, over 50% of our working age population will have at least one chronic illness by 2030. Professor Goldblatt agreed, arguing that every government minister should, in one sense, be a health minister because population – and, indeed, workforce health – are key to social inclusion and prosperity.

I concluded my presentation with a call to action:

Prioritise MSDs – clinicians and policy-makers must recognise their impact across the EU on lost productivity and social exclusion, reflecting this in clinical priorities and active labour market policy

Deliver national and regional plans – to provide logic, standards, pathways and outcome measures for health, welfare and employment support for people with MSDs

Include ‘work’ as an outcome in health technology appraisal (HTA) – healthcare decision-making should reflect the societal impact of interventions which help people with MSDs to stay in work

Support self-management – we should be placing people with MSDs at the centre of their care, vocational rehabilitation and workplace accommodations

The summit was a great success, and it allowed delegates the opportunity to share experiences and good practice with each other in workshops and interactive sessions which, I am confident, will enable real change to happen at local level across the EU and beyond.

And ‘beyond’ is where Fit for Work goes next as we leave Europe to launch our research into the impact of MSDs on the Japanese labour market in November.