National Mens Health Research Centre
Dr. Noel Richardson is perhaps the most influential figure in the sphere of men’s health in Ireland. The IT Carlow academic played a key role in developing men’s health as a distinct discipline within Irish healthcare studies. He was the principal author of both Ireland’s first-ever National Policy on men’s health in 2009, and the revised National Men’s Action Plan of 2016.
When it comes to health in the workplace, Dr. Richardson holds strong views informed by recent experience. “The problem is that workplace wellbeing isn’t seen as a productivity issue, which research shows it is. We’re still playing catch-up with the issue, the evidence is only coming through, but the work is being done”.
“Employers’ predominant focus”, Dr. Richardson continues, “is on safety. The ‘health” part in health and safety doesn’t get as much focus. In industries like construction and farming, the approach tends to centre on reducing risk rather than a holistic focus on prevention”.
Workplace wellbeing leads to benefits for both employer and employee
Dr. Richardson is adamant that taking workplace wellbeing seriously leads to benefits for both employer and employee. “There’s benefits in terms of morale, staff retention and lower absenteeism. Your employees are far less likely to leave and move on”.
Dr. Richardson has worked in an advisory capacity on wellbeing programmes for An Post, including “Mail Health” – a occupational health scheme aimed specifically at male employees. “If you bring it into an environment where men are at ease and comfortable, it demystifies things like health targets”, he says.
More recently, Dr. Richardson has provided advice on best practice to a Glanbia health assessment programme, supported by the Irish Heart Foundation and a range of academic institutions. “The checks were carried out in familiar environments like marts. There were cardiovascular health checks, follow-up checks and text reminders”.
The findings were alarmingly stark. “We were finding multiple risk factors for cardiovascular illness. Chronic stress and suicide are prevalent in the industry”, Dr. Richardson notes with concern.
What does a healthy workplace look like?
So, what does a healthy workplace look like? “It’s a place with a genuine work-life balance, where there are healthy options in the canteen. Where it’s not a tokenistic engagement – it’s not a one-off, superficial message, or a one-day seminar every year. It’s a place where you work with all stakeholders, including trade unions, to achieve a genuine health promotion ethos”.
An enthusiastic supporter of the men’s sheds movement, Dr. Richardson is deeply interested in the issues that affect men at the end of their working lives. “We live in a society where traditionally, you gauge ‘success’ from your work”.
“A lot of men’s networks are all around work”, he continues. “For men, losing your job or becoming unemployed can be devastating to your sense of self-worth and identity. It’s a risk factor for suicide and chronic disease”.
In addition to men’s sheds, however, Dr. Richardson believes post-work options for men have improved dramatically in recent years. “There’s pre-retirement courses and programmes, particularly in the public sector, that help men transition from the 9-5 routine. In the future, I think we’ll start to see a more graded phasing-out of full-time employment, rather than that abrupt full stop. We lose so much wisdom and skill when people drop out of the workforce completely at an early age”.
The future of workplace health
Dr. Richardson is also optimistic about the future of workplace health in Ireland, although some aspects remain challenging. “With so many SMEs in Ireland employing 10-15 people, it’s harder for them to provide the kinds of supports we’re talking about. Multinationals with thousands of employees have excellent worksite health initiatives, but for smaller employers, that’s not as feasible”.
“We need better translation of evidence”, Dr. Richardson concludes. “We need to get the message home to managers and CEOs that workplace health is a very positive thing, it’s a win-win for the employee, the employer and the economy. That’s beginning to happen”.