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Made in Estonia: Occupational health that works for you

Updated: Jul 2

As the founder of the J. Molner Company, I knew that starting a business around the other side of the world could be daunting - there are new practices, rules, and regulations that have to be learned. Sometimes though, the differences between Estonia and other parts of the world are surprising in a very positive way. And Estonia’s approach to occupational health certainly is one of those positive surprises.

Crammed waiting rooms, long pharmacy lines, and never-ending phone queues are some of the challenges workers in America face while trying to access their health benefits. Meanwhile Estonia, a small Baltic nation on the other side of the Atlantic, has managed to launch regulations that are human-centric and therefore easier for employees to use. Below I want to share with you more on the best occupational health practices Estonian companies follow that I’ve discovered on this journey.

Prevention is the key to good health

Each company in Estonia must disclose an assessment of risks existing in their work environment, which may include noise exposure, prolonged vibrations, forced body positions, or using a screen for more than half of the day. After analyzing the number and intensity of work hazards, companies usually pay a complete medical check-up for each employee.

Scheduling a work medical checkup is a breeze in Estonia, and can be done with a few clicks. Arriving at the clinic, I was greeted by a tri-lingual team who used my ID card to register me and check me in. Guess what - no filling in those 27 pages of forms like at every US doctor’s office - all of my data is already in the secure national health data service. From start to finish, the fit-to-work check ups took less than an hour and employees receive immediate feedback on their cardiovascular health, mobility, hearing and eyesight. Lab tests are also taken, results are sent within a day and logged into the Estonian health database instantly so records can be easily accessed by other physicians. (I had wanted for years to get my hearing checked but could never figure out how to find the audiologist in the US that was in my health care network plan and that was available for patients. Here in Estonia, it was 3 minutes of testing and on to the next stop!)

Medical consultations can also be booked online while prescriptions are also saved in the centralized health system, which guarantees that employees can pick up their medication immediately after leaving their doctor’s office in any pharmacy. In the case of sickness, workers have the right to use up to 182 days of paid leave. The first three days are not compensated, while the employer pays out the next four, and the Health Insurance Fund covers sick leave pay from day nine onwards.

Support for parents (even before the baby is born!)

According to a recent UNICEF report, Estonia ranks first for family-friendly policies along with Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Portugal. Pregnant women in Estonia are protected by the Health Insurance Fund, which means they can access specialized care, medical analysis, and ultrasounds from the start of their pregnancy.

Depending on the recommendation of their OB-GYN or midwife, mothers-to-be can go on maternity leave for up to 70 days before their due date. Maternity leave encompasses a total of 140 days, while fathers can also take paternity leave for 30 days. With a low population, Estonia incentivizes parents to have children by offering extra perks that extend to the delivery room: “They are almost magical places. There are baths, exercise balls and other equipment in many birthing rooms. Mothers can dim the lights and bring their own music to relax better. Each birth is marked on a public board in the corridor with pride. And all this, of course, is for free,” reports Marian Männi, writer of Research in Estonia.

Both mother and father can also ask their employers for 18 months of additional parental leave, which can be taken by one of them at a time and be used until the child turns 3. Estonia also offers new parents a “birth bonus”, and gives them a monthly childcare allowance that extends until the child is 16 or 19. This means that both mothers and fathers can take the time to be with their new baby in this remarkable system.

Extra perks that make you look good (and feel even better!)

The job marketplace is highly competitive in Estonia, so employers are always looking for ways to attract the best talent for their team. It is not unusual for companies to offer additional perks to their employees that keep them healthy.

Some companies offer eyewear compensation (covering up to 75% of the cost), while others offer discounted prices on dental services, psychological counselling, massages, and sport memberships. Spending on gym memberships for employees also benefits entrepreneurs, since they can get a tax rebate on the expense.

Educating to manage emergencies

Accidents may happen even in the safest of work environments. The Work Inspection Ministry of Estonia is pretty clear on who is tasked with ensuring the safety of all the company: “Aid shall be available in all situations related to work and it is up to the manager of the enterprise to organise it in a way that everything possible is done in any situation to keep the victim alive until medical assistance arrives,” according to its website.

Estonian companies must designate one or more workers to be in charge of first aid in case of emergency. Companies should also pay for training courses to ensure that the chosen employees are properly trained in first aid care for at least 16 hours. First aid stations should also be visible and known to all employees, and can be used as rest or breastfeeding areas while not in use.

In the worst of cases, employees have the right to claim compensation if they are harmed in a work accident. Going beyond emergency care, this compensation may cover additional expenses such as prostheses, prescriptions, rehab, travel expenses to the hospital, and even home care.

In just thirty years of existence, Estonia has created a robust occupational health legislation that strives to keep employees working without compromising their physical or mental health. This has helped the country to become an attractive place to work and live not only for foreign professionals but also for companies and investors.

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