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Why Employers Care

Employees are affected by a number of medical and psychological conditions that may impair their engagement at work. Presenteeism refers to the problem of employees who are physically present at work but are not fully engaged, due mainly to physical or psychological distress; it is a major cause of lost productivity. Some of the medical conditions most associated with presenteeism are allergies/sinus problems, low back pain, depression, arthritis and migraine. In addition, health risk factors such as physical inactivity, poor diet, high stress and trouble sleeping are also associated with presenteeism. The cost of presenteeism may even be greater than the cost of direct health care costs and absenteeism combined. When the total cost of employee illness was analyzed, indirect costs (presenteeism, absenteeism and short-term and long-term disability) were about 75 percent of the total cost of illness borne by employers, while the direct medical and pharmacy costs were about 25 percent of the total.1

What Can Employers Do?

Since the list of potential stressors and distractions affecting employees is extensive, the employer focus must be on providing employees with information on coping strategies and resources to improve health and reduce health risks. The good news is that employer-sponsored wellness, stress management and EAP/behavioral health programs all work toward improving presenteeism. In fact, research has shown that changes in health risks as perceived by the employee are associated with changes in presenteeism; employees who reported increased health risks in a two-year period were less productive, and those with fewer health risks were more productive.2

Presenteeism is self-reported, and it is difficult for many financial managers to accept that these so-called "soft" costs are three times the "hard" costs. However, if not already collected, employers may consider adding questions to existing health assessment questionnaires to capture presenteeism; with this data, it is possible to calculate the potential savings impact of reducing health risks and reducing the problem of presenteeism.

References (show references)

1 Paul Hemp, "Presenteeism: At Work — But Out of It", Harvard Business Review, October 2004.

2 Wayne N. Burton et al, "The Association between Health Risk Change and Presenteeism Change," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2006.

Page last updated: September 14, 2012

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