European Fit for Work report

Fit for work reportTaken from NRAS magazine, New Year 2010

The Fit for Work study showed that over 44 million (one in six) members of the European Union (EU) workforce now have a long-standing health problem or disability that affects their ability to work, and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) account for a higher proportion of sickness absence from work than any other health condition: 9.5 million were lost in one year in the UK alone.   It is estimated that up to 2 per cent - €240 billion – of European gross domestic product (GDP) is accounted for by the direct costs of MSDs each year. 

On the 30 September, Lynn Love, NRAS Director of Operations, attended the launch events surrounding the European Fit for Work report, a groundbreaking study by The Work Foundation, a UK think tank that concerns itself with workplace issues.   The research, conducted across 25 European countries and beyond, examined the impact of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on an individual’s ability to work and therefore the impact on economies and society as a whole.

The publication of the report served as the launch of an ambitious Fit for Work Europe campaign, conceived to stimulate debate, policy and practice across each participating country of the EU, to ensure that the early diagnosis and treatment of workers with MSDs - such as RA - takes into account the positive health impact of being able to stay in work, for those who wish to.

Over 2.9 million people in Europe have rheumatoid arthritis, many are of working age. On average, every third person with RA becomes work disabled and up to 40 per cent leave work completely within 5 years of diagnosis.  Many people with RA want to stay in work but are unable to because their condition is not diagnosed or treated early enough, or with the right treatment.  In the UK, our own National Audit Office has calculated that a 10 per cent increase in people with RA being treated within 3 months of diagnosis could result in productivity gains of £31m for the economy due to reduced sick leave and lost employment.

Early interventions make a difference

One of the key findings of the report is that early detection of, and intervention in, MSDs ultimately reduces the burden on governments’ health and disability budgets, and measurably improves the lives of a nation’s citizens – and of course – employees’ performance.  The report also recommended new and more inclusive methods to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of treating MSDs in particular: one that considers more than simply the up-front costs of medical expenditure and incorporates wider social and economic factors - such as work productivity - into the financial and medical evaluations for treating MSDs and other chronic conditions.  Indeed, NICE in the UK has already begun such a deliberation, although no decision has been reached to date.  

Dame Carol BlackFormally launched at a reception at the European Parliament hosted by MEPs Edite Estrela (Portugal) and Antonyia Parvanova (Bulgaria), and endorsed by the Swedish Presidency of the European Union, the event enjoyed the presence of representatives from EULAR,  of European Union institutions (DG Sanco and DG Employment),  and the representatives from the Belgian, UK and Swedish governments. 

The entire programme, which consisted of a National Good Practice Sharing Session and a Policy Workshop, was attended by an impressive range of stakeholders from patient, physician and policy organisations from across Europe.

Patient Brainstorming SessionDuring the course of events, policymakers announced the formation of a parliamentary interest group on musculoskeletal disorders, called for a Council Recommendation on MSDs from the Commission and National MSD Plans from Member States. In a direct question to Prof Emery, President of EULAR, attendees demanded improved guidance for physicians on earlier intervention in MSDs … all part of the message of Fit for Work. 

A call for coordinated and focused action

Prof Paul EmeryThe Work Foundation and the assembled delegates ended the day with a call for action to policymakers, healthcare professionals, patients and employers:  Governments must prioritise and fund services for MSDs; physicians must make “work” – whether employment, voluntary or homemaking - an important goal in managing conditions such as RA; patients must be partners in both the management of their disease and in their relationships with their employers; and employers, large or small, must look at job design that promotes task discretion, flexibility and employee involvement. On the day, the delegates agreed that only coordinated action between governments, business, the healthcare professional community and patients will result in treatment that allow those living with MSDs to stay working/living their lives, to feel a part of society and to maintain quality of life.

Finally, the report was interesting for other reasons, as well.  The Fit for Work Europe study also investigated the links between the physical and psychological aspects of MSDs. It highlighted the fact that workers with conditions such as RA very often experience more prolonged work disability and find return to work after a period of absence much more difficult if their mental well-being is also poor. The findings also suggested that simple ergonomic changes to the work environment, while important, cannot be the only pillar of successful job retention and vocational rehabilitation.

For more information, please visit the website and find out how you can help reach the goal of making the UK and Europe Fit for Work!