By KATYA TSAIOUN, Ph.D., L.D.N., Chief Nutrition Officer

More than 130 million American workers suffer from chronic health conditions that are caused by lifestyle choices, and can be prevented and in many cases reversed by behavior changes. They may be sedentary, which is a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. They may be smokers, which increases their risk of cancer, emphysema, COPD, and heart disease. They may have difficulty getting enough sleep, making them less productive and more accident-prone, and increasing their risk of obesity and heart disease. They may be under significant stress, which causes sleep disorders and excessive inflammation. Lack of sleep and increased inflammation are underlying many chronic conditions such as diabetes, high-blood pressure and osteoarthritis.

These preventable chronic health conditions cost employers millions of dollars each year in direct medical costs, and in lost productivity due to presenteeism and absenteeism. So improving workers’ health should improve their productivity, and your bottom line. But is the cost of better healthcare worth the benefit of improved employee health?

Putting a Price on Productivity Losses

Here’s what workers’ chronic health conditions are costing their employers:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that workers who suffer from chronic health conditions miss 450 million more work days each year than healthy workers. Productivity losses from absenteeism amount to $225 billion each year – that’s $1,683 per employee.
  • The CDC has also found that workplace stress is the most common workplace health condition in the United States. It ranks above both smoking and obesity in terms of occupational health risk.
  • A 2016 study in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease found that each year, absenteeism resulting from five conditions – smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes and high blood pressure – cost employers $2 billion apiece.
  • A 2017 review of literature published in the journal Value in Health found that productivity losses and costs due to presenteeism often exceed the losses and costs attributable to absenteeism. “Presenteeism,” or “working while sick,” occurs when workers are in the workplace, but not as productive as they could be due to health conditions. Rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, and insomnia were the chronic health conditions most commonly associated with presenteeism.

Come for the Job, Stay for the Wellness Program?

Employers benefit measurably when they provide employees with the resources to increase their physical activity and better manage their chronic health conditions.

  • Employers save $83-103 in medical costs each year for each worker who reduces their weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol by just 1 percent.
  • Companies with effective safety, health and environmental programs outperform the S&P 500 by between 3 and 5 percent.

In addition to decreased health spending and increased productivity, workplace wellness programs effectively address another workplace problem set: morale and retention. In 2010, the Harvard Business Review found that a good workplace wellness program can offer a return on investment of 300% or more, in part by reducing absenteeism, presenteeism, and health care usage. What was the other part? Sharply increased employee morale and retention. So, when you help your workers get healthy and stay healthy, you’re also improving your bottom line and retaining talent. When you do more for your workers’ health, they’ll do more for you.

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