Study: Costs of Employee Health on Productivity Underestimated

Poor health among workers is far costlier to U.S. employers than they realize, according to a major study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM).

The multi-year study of 10 organizations employing more than 150,000 workers indicates that employers who focus only on medical and pharmacy costs in creating employee health strategies may misidentify the health conditions that most impact the productivity of their employees -- while underestimating the impact of other factors.

One such factor, "presenteeism," occurs when employees with health conditions are present at their jobs but are unable to perform at full capacity. The study examined the effects of presenteeism, concluding that impaired employee-performance typically creates a greater drain on a company's productivity than employee absence -- a finding which could come as a surprise to some employers.

The study also found that when considering medical and drug costs alone, the top five conditions driving costs are cancer (other than skin cancer), back/neck pain, coronary heart disease, chronic pain, and high cholesterol. But when health-related productivity costs are measured along with medical and pharmacy costs, the top five chronic health conditions driving these overall health costs shift significantly, to depression, obesity, arthritis, back/neck pain and anxiety.

The study suggests that many employers miss an opportunity to improve productivity and their bottom-line results by failing to recognize and prioritize these health conditions when they develop integrated employee- health strategies and related interventions.

The study, coordinated by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), and Alere LLC (formerly Matria Healthcare, Inc.) is one of the largest of its kind to date. Research was conducted via the Alere Center for Health Intelligence and funding was provided by the National Pharmaceutical Council.

"The wake-up call for U.S. employers is that simply looking at the costs of specific medical conditions by adding up medical and pharmacy claims costs alone won't give a true picture of the full impact of poor health on the much greater costs of lost productivity in the workforce," said Ronald Loeppke, MD, MPH, executive vice president of Health and Productivity Strategy for Alere(R) and one of the study's lead researchers. In addition to his role at Alere(R), Loeppke serves on the board of directors of both IBI and ACOEM.

"Employers need to move beyond solutions that focus only on specific medical conditions and toward the development of integrated personal health support strategies that deal with multiple health conditions and health risks by focusing on the whole person as well as the whole population," said Thomas Parry, PhD, president of the Integrated Benefits Institute. "This is especially important if American business is to remain competitive in the midst of a dire global economy."

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