Kate O’Flaherty is the Director of the Health and Wellbeing Programme in the Department of Health, the unit which coordinates the implementation of the Healthy Ireland Framework. A pharmacist by professional background, Kate also has an MA in Journalism and has worked as a journalist and communications consultant, specialising in health.  In 2007 she joined the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, the pharmacy regulator, as Head of Communications and Public Affairs, and in 2010 undertook an additional role as Head of Pharmacy Practice Development. Kate moved to the Department to head the recently established Health and Wellbeing Programme in July 2013.

Healthy Workplaces

A new national focus on ‘Healthy Workplaces’ is one of the priorities under the “Healthy Ireland” agenda for Minister for Health Leo Varadkar TD.

The Minister recently announced that he had received Cabinet approval to draft a Health and Wellbeing Bill that would require public service employers to develop ‘healthy workplace’ policies to promote the physical, mental and social wellbeing of employees. This new requirement is intended as a positive action measure to support an enabling environment for the development of healthy workplace practices and plans. Alongside this, the Department of Health, in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders across public and private sectors, will develop an overarching Healthy Workplace Framework to support employers in developing policies and plans to suit their particular circumstances, and to facilitate the identification and sharing of best practices.

So, why the focus on workplaces? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), workplace health programmes are one of the best ways to prevent and control chronic disease, and also to support mental health. The impact that the workplace can have on health and wellbeing is increasingly recognised at international level. For example, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently published guidelines that advise that promoting a positive culture that improves the health and wellbeing of employees is good management and leads to healthy and productive workplaces.

Making health and wellbeing a core priority in any organisation requires the commitment of the leadership, but there is also a leadership role for the public sector in driving the Healthy Ireland agenda, which aims to increase the proportion of people who are healthy throughout their lives with a renewed focus on prevention and empowerment of individuals, families and communities to look after their own health and wellbeing.

And we know that the health of the nation could be significantly improved on a number of fronts by supporting people to make healthier lifestyle choices, and by helping to reduce the social and environmental barriers to making those healthier choices. And while some of our key health indicators have improved in recent years, for example in relation to smoking, the levels of overweight and obesity, physical inactivity and mental health difficulties in our adult population continue to be issues of significant concern.

As many adults spend a significant portion of their time in workplaces, then it makes sense to ensure that the delivery of our national strategies and initiatives consider how these supports and messages are integrated into the resources provided within workplaces. For example, later this year we will be publishing Ireland’s first National Physical Activity Plan, which has been developed in conjunction with the Department of Tourism, Transport and Sport and a range of other stakeholders; this Plan will include a focus on promoting physical activity in the workplace, and making it easier for people to be more physically active as part of everyday working lives.

The development of a national framework will provide us with the opportunity to recognise and enhance existing initiatives, to facilitate the sharing of experience and learning, and also provide the necessary supports and tools for organisations or companies who haven’t yet developed their own resources.

While the value of a collaborative approach is clear, it must also be recognised that there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to healthy workplace policies. So while we will support organisations in identifying and implementing initiatives, they will be able to do so within the context of their own organisational characteristics and circumstances, and in collaboration with their own employees.

This ethos of collaboration will be central to this initiative, to help learn what works best and share that learning across a range of sectors. In the public sector, the potential impact is significant, given that public sector companies and agencies employ about 15% of the total workforce. And the approaches to improving the health and wellbeing of employees within workplaces will also have positive effects on their families and wider communities.

Our initial informal engagement with a range of stakeholders has signalled that there is a significant appetite for a focus on workplace health, and that the strategic importance and benefits of a healthy workplace are increasingly understood and recognised. A healthy society and workforce benefits all sectors, so a wide and collective response will multiply efforts and deliver better outcomes.

It is clear that improving the health and wellbeing of our population will play a central and supportive role in Ireland’s short- and longer-term economic recovery programme, as well as reducing the prospect of unaffordable health costs, which will certainly arise if current health trends are not addressed.

Through our Healthy Ireland Cross-Sectoral Group, which comprises senior officials from government departments, plus a number of key agencies such as the HSE, EPA and HSA, we are establishing a group to support and oversee the development of the healthy workplace framework. And in the coming months, we will be engaging with key stakeholders on this project to build our overall capacity to improve health and wellbeing in our workplaces, and to support a culture that truly values the health and wellbeing of our population.