National Audit Office: To Prevent Decrease in People’s Work Ability, More Precise Prevention and Counselling Instead of Fining Employers Is Needed

10/4/2023 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 4th October 2023. – In today's published audit, the National Audit Office finds that the prevention of work ability loss has been so far untargeted and inactive, which is why the focus is mainly on violations and fining. Prevention of work ability loss needs fundamental reorganisation; it would be reasonable to change the focus from supervision to active and more precisely targeted prevention. Additionally, it is crucial to establish trust between employers and the Labor Inspectorate to reduce the fear of supervision. This is a fundamental step for making workplaces safer.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, which has been responsible for the field until now, has treated the large number of people with reduced working ability as partly inevitable, because the health of the average Estonian person already fails at working age. According to the National Audit Office, it would still be possible to slow down the decrease in working ability with more precisely targeted and meaningful prevention work.

Over the past decade, the Labor Inspectorate has focused on ensuring that employers submit risk analyses of the working environment on time. At the same time, employers would need daily and practical advice on how to make the working environment safer. "There are over 40 inspectors at the Labor Inspectorate, but only 2 working environment consultants," stated Ines Metsalu-Nurminen, Chief Auditor of the National Audit Office. "Although supervision is important, in order to preserve people's ability to work, it is necessary to shift the focus to prevention more than before."

The National Audit Office finds that to improve the prevention of work ability reduction, the current work organisation of the institutions in the field must be critically reviewed. For example, occupational diseases are diagnosed by the Centre of Occupational Diseases and Health, from where these data are sent to the Labor Inspectorate, which must analyse the state of the working environment based on them. The Labor Inspectorate sends these data to the Health Board almost a year later, which must analyse occupational illnesses by disease and in turn publishes them with a year-long delay. "Actually, the Centre of Occupational Diseases and Health does the basic analysis, and, with the current work organisation, no significant added value is created by passing this data through further stages," explained Chief Auditor Ines Metsalu-Nurminen.

The National Audit Office noticed that although the work ability reform changed the attitude towards people with reduced work ability, it has not adequately addressed the underlying causes. During the audit, it became apparent that one common reason is fear. Employees hide their work ability problems from the occupational health doctor and the employer because they are afraid of losing their job. Employers are afraid to ask the Labor Inspectorate for advice on the working environment because they are afraid of being fined for mistakes.

The Ministry of Social Affairs' only plan so far is to develop an intervention measure for people on long-term sick leave to encourage continued work in adapted circumstances during temporary incapacity. The target group of the new measure is employees who have been on sick leave for more than 60 consecutive days, who need at least another 30 days of sick leave and do not need hospital treatment. "The purpose of this measure is to encourage continued employment, not to prevent a decrease in working ability. Rather, it is a matter of dealing with the consequences in a slightly earlier phase," said Chief Auditor Ines Metsalu-Nurminen.

The National Audit Office's analysis suggests that this intervention alone may most likely not be sufficient, particularly for the most critical target group, i.e. elementary occupations with lower incomes, who often cannot afford extended sick leaves for economic reasons. 

The analysis also showed that prevention of work ability reduction may require an approach based on occupational groups. For example, workers in occupational groups who are not often on sick leave may need measures to allow them to remain on sick leave under favourable conditions to properly restore their health. In the long term, this can maintain their work ability.

From 1st July 2023, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is responsible for preventing work ability decrease.

The National Audit Office recommends that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, in addition to focusing on employment in labour market policy, specifically address work ability and develop a comprehensive approach to prevent work ability decrease. To reduce the existing fragmentation, it is necessary to critically review the current tasks of the Labor Inspectorate, the Health Board and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, assess the division between institutions and their capability to perform assigned tasks.

According to the National Audit Office, it is necessary to make the journey of getting help in matters related to work ability more comprehensive for people, both in occupational health, assessment of work ability and receiving services, as well as diagnosis of occupational and work-related diseases.

Ultimately, the National Audit Office recommends changing the operation of the Labor Inspectorate so that the focus of the institution is on active targeted prevention instead of supervision. It is also necessary to focus on supportive counselling of employers and employees, primarily in matters of everyday life, how to increase occupational safety and improve the working conditions of a specific employee or work team. This requires trusting, cooperative, and forward-looking cooperation between employers and the Labor Inspectorate to reduce employers' fear of supervision.


Background information

In the course of the work ability reform launched in 2016, the system of permanent inability for work was replaced by the work ability support system. The reform was initiated primarily due to the rapid increase in the number of recipients of the pension for inability for work and the ever-increasing costs of the state.

The share of people receiving work ability allowance has not decreased significantly compared to the share of people receiving the pension for inability for work from the working-age population and compared to the time before the work ability reform (in 2012–2013), but the reform has helped slow down the growth. The share of subsidies and service costs in the operating costs of the government sector has remained at the pre-reform level.

One of the reasons for the non-decrease in both the number of people and the share of costs is that the creation of additional measures to prevent the loss of working capacity was left out of the goals of the reform. The Ministry of Social Affairs, its subordinate institutions, and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, even without additional preventive measures, have several tasks, which should promote the prevention of the decrease in work ability. During the audit, it was revealed that the performance of prevention tasks in the field of work ability has been unsatisfactory.

Priit Simson
Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia
+372 640 0102
+372 5615 0280
[email protected]
[email protected]

  • Posted: 10/4/2023 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 10/5/2023 2:56 PM
  • Last Review: 10/5/2023 2:56 PM

Labour Inspectorate at work. It is crucial to establish trust between employers and the Labor Inspectorate to reduce the fear of supervision.

Toomas Tatar / Postimees / Scanpix

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