While organizations tread through the headwinds of a frail economic recovery, some might still be overlooking a problem that has quietly hampered productivity and bottom-line growth for years — presenteeism; the loss of employee productivity while at work due to chronic health problems or illness.
The lesser-known little brother of absenteeism — a loss of productivity because an employee is simply not at work — presenteeism, according to research cited by health and well-being advocacy group Healthways, costs the U.S. economy more than $150 billion annually and accounts for 71 percent of the total cost of productivity within an organization. Taken together, the two are believed to cost roughly three times what a company would normally pay for employee pharmacy and medical claims.
And since the economy sputtered into a recession in 2008, more workers have been spending time not working, but worrying. New research highlighted in an article in The Wall Street Journal says there has been a direct correlation between foreclosure rates and emergency room visits since the start of the financial crisis. According to the study, conducted by Princeton and Georgia State University, the uptick in home foreclosures accounted for a rise in cases of hypertension, anxiety and diabetes in Arizona, Florida, California and New Jersey.
This leads to the belief that the presenteeism problem in the workplace is still persistent, and learning leaders should take closer notice. Many organizations have noticed, and have implemented health and well-being programs so employees can work to alleviate stress. But while certain measures already exist that can give an employer some sense of the level of presenteeism in an organization, a new study says most assessments are not broad enough. “Productivity loss is an expensive problem,” said Elizabeth Rula, a principal investigator for Healthways.
She is also one of the authors of a new study Healthways conducted with Pro-Change Behavior Systems Inc., a company that develops computer- and coaching-based programs to change health risk behaviors. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, sought to develop and test an assessment that could measure job performance loss due to presenteeism on a broader scale.
“We wanted to develop an instrument that would allow employers to not only measure the level of productivity loss that occurred on the job, but to have enough information that would allow them to understand how they might fix it,” Rula said.
What they came up with was the Healthways Well-Being Assessment for Productivity (WBA-P), a Web-based questionnaire that was distributed to roughly 1,827 employed individuals.
Participants were recruited through the Internet and completed the survey online. Only employed individuals were surveyed, with a median age of 47, and the majority of participants were married. The assessment consisted of five different measurements: general health; work and performance; well-being assessment for productivity; health risk management; and life evaluation.
“Think about days you were limited in the amount or kind of work you could do; days you accomplished less than you would like; or days you could not do your work as carefully as usual,” one scenario on the survey read. It then would ask a participant to answer using a 10-point scale, with zero meaning “health problems had no effect on my work” to 10, meaning “health problems completely prevented one from working.”
This approach aimed for a broader measure of the problem. Instead of just focusing on chronic or physical illness as a means for worker productivity loss, the assessment also looks at personal or financial stresses and things like allergies.
“Many of the presenteeism measures out there focus on specific workplace issues or specific chronic diseases,” said Kerry Evers, senior vice president for Pro-Change. “But with this measure, we’re really focusing not just on those things but also some of the stresses that are coming from home.”
The results of their research showed that the assessment was an effective means to gauge a broader sense of presentieeism in the workplace. Yet, it remains to be seen if organizations and learning leaders embrace such a broad approach, one that measures some of the harder-to-detect personal stresses.
“The intent of this measure was to get at some of those [softer] issues,” said Evers. “I think this assessment really gives the opportunity to give some of those [organizations] at the business-unit level to say, ‘OK, we have a lot of stress.’”
Frank Kalman is associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.