Health and Productivity: ‘Presenteeism’ costs big bucks

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All companies know that productivity can be hamstrung by absenteeism. Now they have something else to fret over: presenteeism. This newly minted syndrome is defined as on-the-job slowdowns by workers with a variety of medical ills, from hypertension to arthritis. According to researchers at Cornell University’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies and the health-information firm Medstat, on-the-job losses are possibly as high as 60 percent of the total cost of worker illness, exceeding the costs of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits. Allergies, headaches, arthritis, asthma and mental-health ailments such as depression cause the greatest on-the-job productivity losses.

“All in all, this means that from about one-fifth to three-fifth of the total dollars attributable to common health conditions faced by employers appear to be the result of on-the-job productivity losses,” says Ron Goetzel, director of IHPS. Employers tend to be hesitant about hiring because of skyrocketing medical-care costs, they said, which is why it’s important to look at the big picture. “If a company’s health plan is poor, for example, disorders may not be well managed,” says Goetzel. “Workers will come to work and not be as productive. Employers need to weigh the costs of good medical care against the potential for on-the-job productivity losses, which we see are substantial in many cases.”

In fact, the expense of these losses is in most cases higher than medical costs. “Yet this very large category of expenses has not been adequately considered by employers,” says Goetzel.

The study appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.