Promoting Wellness to Combat Absenteeism

May 14, 2014

The Zombie apocalypse is upon us, it's real, and it costs employers billions, studies show.

But the Zombies aren't taking the form of the undead rising from the grave in a quest to consume the living. Instead, it's taking the form of exhausted, sick, injured or demoralized employees showing up to work, but for whatever reason not performing to their full productivity potential.

That's the conclusion of a new study out of Brigham Young University, which concluded that when it comes to damage to employers, the cost ratio of presenteeism versus absenteeism is as three is to one.

Researchers found that presenteeism was highly correlated with outside factors, including poor health, poor eating habits, financial stress, and relationship problems and other emotional problems from outside the company. Workers become stressed and distracted - and being human, their problems are spilling over into the workplace.

According to the study's chief researcher, the study looked at more than 20,000 workers.

Among its findings:

  • Those with bad diets were 66 percent more susceptible to presenteeism than those with healthy diets.
  • Smokers reported productivity losses 28 percent more often than non-smokers.
  • Regular exercisers were 50 percent less likely than those who only exercised "occasionally" to succumb to presenteeism.

Contributing Factors

In addition to the normal litany of minor ailments, parents spending time checking on sick children at home, or time spent at work trying to resolve a minor financial matter - a certain amount of which is nearly unavoidable unless you want to staff your company with droids - management sometimes contributes to the problem by shutting down important stress valves:

  • Putting too much emphasis on attendance in workplace performance reviews.
  • Disciplining or stigmatizing workers who call in sick on short notice.
  • Expending manager's valuable time 'verifying' illnesses (a cost sink in itself!)

The solution

The authors of the study concluded that the use of the cat-o-nine tails to improve workplace morale is probably suboptimal. Instead, the authors suggested some basic leadership and resourcing measures, such as helping managers and workers prioritize what is important, and providing "sufficient technological support."

Additionally, the study's authors suggested implementing targeted wellness programs designed to address employees' specific stressors. For example, where employees may be struggling with financial stressors distracting them from their work situation, Merrill suggests making financial planning services available. Where health issues were paramount, Merrill suggested programs to help workers stop smoking, improve eating habits, and address physical and mental health issues.

Lowering presenteeism will require that employers have realistic expectations of workers, help workers prioritize, and provide sufficient technological support. Financial stress and concerns may warrant financial planning services. Health promotion interventions aimed at improving nutrition and physical and mental health also may contribute to reducing presenteeism.

Other ideas include sponsoring a workplace flu vaccination program, sending sick workers home immediately, and implementing a 'no-questions-asked' PTO policy, as opposed to segregating sick days and personal leave days. Leaders can also reward and encourage midline managers who are creative in allowing staffers flexible work arrangements - though care should still be taken to comply with wage and hour laws.