While logic tells us that healthier workers are likely to be more productive than those with health risks, a recent study confirms this, finding that individuals with a number of health risks have seven times more lost productivity than those with no identified health risks. Health risks most strongly associated with on-the-job productivity loss were back pain, mental well-being (depression) and stress. Also, the chances of productivity loss rose as the number of health risks increased.

The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and conducted by StayWell Health Management researchers and John Riedel, a health and productivity expert, included data from 106 companies in five industry sectors, representing responses from nearly a quarter of a million individual employees. Questions on health and work performance were incorporated into the companies’ health risk assessments to collect the data. Employees considered to be at low risk were classified as a NIF (Normal Impairment Factor) group. According to the study, “NIF captures the amount of productivity loss experienced by individuals who are at low risk…thus representing the level of productivity loss that health improvement initiatives targeting these risks will not affect.” Thus, the NIF essentially serves as a benchmark to gauge the amount of productivity loss that could be eliminated through various health risk reduction strategies.

The study included eight health risk areas: alcohol use, back pain, driving, physical activity, stress, tobacco use, weight and mental well-being (depression). Productivity loss was consistently associated with “at risk” health status for all of these factors, with the greatest productivity loss observed for those at risk for back pain, stress and mental well-being. Individuals at elevated risk for back pain reported 13% more productivity loss than those at low risk; those at risk for depression reported 7.4% greater productivity loss; and those at risk for stress reported 4.8% greater productivity loss. When measured as lost time, ongoing back pain was responsible for 5.7 weeks of lost productivity each year, depression for 2.4 weeks, and stress for 1.1 weeks. Thus, according to the study, these three areas present the greatest potential for productivity improvement through intervention, such as targeted wellness initiatives.

Greater productivity loss also was observed among individuals who had multiple health risks. Individuals in the study had an average of 2.4 health risks each, and each additional risk increased productivity loss by 2.4%. An individual with all eight risk factors experienced a productivity loss of 24%.

How do these estimates of productivity loss impact an employer’s bottom line? The researchers calculated that 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 study estimates that if 100 people with three health risks were to eliminate just one health risk, this could mean productivity gains worth $149,400 for an employer.

For employers, a study such as this one provides ample financial justification for investments in wellness initiatives. Looking at the dollar cost of productivity losses brought about by employees’ health risks, it’s easy to see that targeted interventions aimed at reducing employees’ health risks for identified conditions or behaviors can readily result in a return that exceeds the investment made in such initiatives.