World MS Day event: Chronic Illness, Carers and Workplace Flexibility – The New Workforce Challenge

  • Minister for Employment Participation
  • Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery

House of Representatives Alcove
Parliament House, Canberra

6pm, Wednesday 26 May 2010

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Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on – the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge Ian Pennell, my Ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me to speak today, It is a very special occasion – World MS Day.

Can I thank MS Australia for putting work and employment at the heart of today’s events.

And can I recognise Kate Lundy and Gary Humphries, co-chairs of the MS Parliamentary Friendship Group.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a contribution on the topic.

I don’t speak this evening an expert on Multiple Sclerosis.

There is much I don’t know about the illness.

What I do know is that an estimated 18 000 Australians have MS and it affects thousands more family members and carers.

I know it is an unpredictable disease, with different impacts from one affected person to the next.

And I know that it’s first diagnosed most often when people are between the ages of 20 and 50, and most often in women.

As some one who has not been directly affected by MS, I cannot speak with personal experience about its impact on individuals and their families.

But I do have two friends who suffer from MS who constantly inspire me with their positive attitudes and outlooks.

Both have long suffered and both have found ways to stay active and in the workforce.

Most people who are diagnosed with MS are in the prime of their life.

They are studying, in training, or in work.

They are in that stage where they are contributing their skills and knowledge to the economy and society at large.

Yet more than half of all people living with MS say they’ve lost employment because of their illness.

And 80 per cent will lose their employment within 10 years of diagnosis.

Those figures are disturbing.

And as Minister for Employment Participation, I think those statistics are shameful.

While the personal costs of this are obviously great, and I’ll discuss those later, just for a moment let’s put the subject into purely financial terms.

The loss of those workers has a massive impact on the economy. The loss of productivity alone by informal caring for people with chronic illness is $4.9 billion.

The Multiple Sclerosis International Federation estimates the average cost of multiple sclerosis per person, per year in Australia is $47,000 and loss of work accounts for one-third of this, about $19,000.

But more important than this cost is the loss of the talent and skills to our nation.

These workers must be more highly valued by employers.

Skills shortages and the need for workplace flexibility

As a country we are facing future skills shortages in critical areas… I often hear employers say they cannot get skilled workers for their businesses.

But they are overlooking vast sections of the population because of a lack of understanding of the contribution they can continue to make to the workforce, despite their illness or disability.

There is a large untapped resource of potential workers who want to work but who are not being utilised to their full potential due to a lack of workplace flexibility.

Employment participation must be at the core of business decision making and government policy making.

What we need to see is a change of attitude.

A change of attitude from employers and a change of attitude at the middle management, human resource and supervisor level.All parties need to recognise that with the right assistance people with chronic illness can continue to work productively.

They need to recognise that flexible arrangements benefit both employers and employees through improved efficiency, increased staff retention and better health and safety practices.

Employees enjoy increased job satisfaction and a better work-life balance.

And in these challenging economic times I think the ability to maintain and harness the skills and talents of employees is critical to helping businesses remain competitive.

This is a shared responsibility.

Because, if we don’t change our attitudes as an economy and as a community we will continue to lose valued workers.

The cost on the individual with MS and chronic illnesses is great.

Personal cost

For the person who is no longer in the workforce there are a host of issues that come from unemployment and exclusion.

The economic and emotional impact on individuals coping with the illness is substantial.

Many simply cannot afford to lose their source of income.

And for others it’s the sense of purpose work can bring.

Many people diagnosed with MS are willing and able to continue to work despite their diagnosis.

And many of the changes required are not expensive.

The International MS Survey found that some relatively simple workplace modifications or changes to working conditions could help people with MS stay in the workforce.

Things like allowing employees to sit down while working, providing rest breaks and access to flexible hours.

We’ve already seen an increased capacity in the flexibility of workplaces through new technologies, new legislation and new policy.

But again, we need a change in attitude among employers, co-workers and society to match these innovations, not just the private sector, public sector departments have come a long way and agencies also need to lift their games.

The Rudd Government believes deeply in the right of every Australian to employment.

We have begun to address issues of workplace flexibility and fairness but we are the first to admit we still have a way to go.

Our Jobs in Jeopardy policy, part of the new Disability Employment Services, helps workers who are in danger of losing their jobs as a result of illness or disability to maintain their existing employment.

It provides:

  • ongoing financial support;
  • assistance in the form of advice about job redesign;
  • workplace assessments;
  • workplace modifications; and
  • the provision of specialised equipment to help them perform the requirements of the job.

The new Disability Employment Services are a significant improvement for people with disability, illness, their families, carers and employers.

They are uncapped, giving people immediate access to the services they need in a flexible way.

Most important, there are no waiting lists.

And last month as part of the Budget we announced the Critical Skills Investment Fund, an industry-matched fund that provides for training, including training mentors.

This can be accessed by people with chronic illness or disability who can provide valuable mentoring to workers as a part of adjustments to their roles.

The measures I have briefly outlined are a good start.

But we need buy-in from those affected by chronic illness or disability, their employers, co-workers, families and friends to truly break down the barriers to employment.


Let me close by saying you’ve hit the nail on the head tonight when you’re looking at the ‘new workforce challenge’ associated with chronic illness and workplace flexibility.

It’s a challenge I am confident we, as a society, are up to.

It will take time, hard work and determination, but workplace by workplace we can change attitudes and outcomes.

And we can ensure that people who suffer from MS and other chronic illnesses are better represented in the workforce.

To everyone involved at MS Australia congratulations on your efforts today, and every day to raise awareness and money to fight this illness.

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