Coming to Work Sick Undercuts Productivity

Posted on Friday, May 31, 2019

Employees who readily come into work sick, in pain, or otherwise sub-par may be considered dedicated  workhorses. But in spite of their best efforts, these employees are not likely to be able to produce at their usual rate. That decline of productivity can amount to a large, overlooked business expense, according to research by the Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies and the health information firm Medstat.

"Presenteeism" Defined

The term used to describe productivity loss by on-the-job employees is "presenteeism." A study of the issue involved analysis of information from a medical/absence database of about 375,000 employees, including medical and short-term disability insurance claims, along with findings from other productivity surveys.

This research estimated that productivity losses due to presenteeism may run as high as 60 percent of the total cost of employee illness, and exceed the cost of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits. Several conditions were identified that have the greatest impact on productivity - headaches, allergies, arthritis, asthma, and mental health-related problems. According to Ron Goetzel, director of the Institute, the research 

The Dollar-Cost to Employers

    The Cornell University research put a price tag on the costliest medical conditions for employers. These amounts include costs attributable to presenteeism, absenteeism, and health and disability benefits, per employee annually:

Hypertension- $392 
Heart disease- $368
Mental health problems- $348
Arthritis- $327

    A similar study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that headaches, back pain, arthritis, and other muscle and joint pain cost employers more than $60 billion annually in lost productivity. That's shocking, but it's even more shocking when you realize these figures (the latest available) are from 2003. Imagine what updated figures would reveal if they were available.

findings indicate that between 20 and 60 percent of the total dollars attributable to these health conditions are the result of productivity losses. Conditions such as allergies and headaches account for the lion's share of illness costs and productivity losses experienced by businesses (more than 80 percent). 

To put presenteeism costs into perspective, consider these facts from Goetzel: The share of health care dollars attributable to outpatient care generally runs at 40 percent of companies' total health costs, but when the productivity losses due to presenteeism are included, the share of health care dollars attributable to outpatient care falls to 11 percent.

Why Worry?

After all, isn't an employee working at less-than-full capacity better than an employee not working at all? An employee who decides to tough out an illness while working risks worsening the condition. If the individual has a legitimate illness, it's usually better to focus on recuperation and, if necessary, seek medical care. Otherwise, working while sick might ultimately result in higher medical costs and longer absenteeism. Furthermore, in the case of contagious conditions such as the flu, coming to work can spread the illness through the workplace.

The Cornell researchers urge that, in light of this information, employers should broaden their view of health care expenses beyond the cost of patient care. For example, if a health plan offers limited provider choices, lower benefits coverage, or poor management of chronic conditions, employees may receive inadequate care. Inadequate care may result in slower recovery and longer periods of reduced productivity. The Cornell research also makes a case for wellness initiatives and basic health education focused on prevention (such as the importance of hand washing to prevent spreading flu bugs). An employer may find that the costs of such programs are paid for through a healthier, more productive workforce.

Of course, the causes of presenteeism are not limited to medical conditions. A physically healthy employee may work at a reduced-productivity rate because of personal issues, child care problems or elder care needs that diminish his or her ability to focus and cause workplace interruptions. Some employers establish employee assistance programs to help manage such problems.

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