Study Links Productivity Loss to Health Risk Factors

By Stephen Miller Apr 2, 2009
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Workplace health management and wellness programs have been shown to reduce health care costs, but research has not shown the link between illness prevention and employee productivity to be robust. Efforts t​o quantify the link between employees' health and their level of productivity have typically focused on the impact of serious, chronic conditions.

However, a study on productivity loss attributable to poor health, in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM), attempts to quantify more generally the impact of a healthy lifestyle on an employer’s bottom line. (The study abstract can be read here: "Use of a Normal Impairment Factor in Quantifying Avoidable Productivity Loss Because of Poor Health.")

“Intuitively, we know that keeping employees healthy is the best way to reduce health care costs, and there’s a large body of research in the industry demonstrating this is true,” said study co-author and health care consultant John Riedel. “But until now, we haven’t had as much data showing that people who have healthy lifestyles with few risk factors are significantly more productive in the workplace than people with high numbers of health risk factors.”

The study includes data from 106 U.S. companies across five industry sectors and represents responses from 772,750 employees. Survey questions were incorporated into each company’s annual health assessment, asking individuals to self-report their health risks and the impact their health had on their work performance.

“By asking people how much health problems limited their ability to perform their job duties, and then comparing those responses to the number of health risks identified through the health assessment and biometric screening, we can get a reasonable estimate of the impact that a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle has on productivity,” said study co-author Jessica Grossmeier, director of research for StayWell Health Management, a provider of health management services.

According to Grossmeier, this study controlled for a number of other factors that might be associated with productivity loss, such as age, gender, industry type, job type and company size. It expanded the current research by introducing the Normal Impairment Factor (NIF), a measure of productivity lost by the healthiest of employees that provides a realistic estimate of achievable productivity gain through intervention.

Key Findings

The study findings reveal the following:

A strong association was found between the number of health risks and productivity loss, ranging from a 3.4 percent productivity loss for those with none of the eight assessed health risks to a 24 percent productivity loss for people with all eight health risks. This means that employees with the most health risks had seven times more lost productivity at work than those with no health risks.

An employee with low health risks experiences an average of $1,472 per year in lost productivity, while a more typical employee with three health risks averages $5,952.The researchers estimate that if 100 people with three health risks were to eliminate just one health risk, this would translate to productivity gains worth $149,400 for the employer.

Among specific health risks identified in the study:

Continuing back pain was responsible for 5.7 weeks of lost productivity each year, representing a 10.9 percent differential between employees at risk and those not at risk for back pain.

Mental well-being and stress accounted for 2.4 and 1.1 weeks of lost productivity, respectively. The difference in lost productivity between those at elevated risk and those at low risk for mental well-being and stress was 4.6 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively.

“This study provides additional evidence that prevention generates opportunities for savings -- not just in lower health care costs, but in substantial employee productivity gains as well,” said study co-author David Anderson, senior vice president and chief health officer at StayWell Health Management.

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Most Employers Underestimate Health Impact on Productivity,SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, April 2009

Finding Wellness's Return on Investment, HR Magazine, June 2008

The ROI of Wellness Programs: From Perk to Priority Investment, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, January 2007

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