We’ve all been there: a stuffy nose that won’t stop running, uncontrollable sneezing or a fogginess that won’t go away. However, for some employees, this sense of discomfort and being unable to focus on work due to an illness or injury can be relentless and ongoing.
The act of being at work, but not functioning at one’s full potential, can often be explained by a phenomenon called “presenteeism.”
What is presenteeism?
Presenteeism is the practice of coming to work despite a medical condition, which can often result in reduced productivity. This could be any type of medical condition: physical injuries, behavioral health conditions or chronic illnesses can all contribute to the effects of presenteeism.
While absenteeism — an employee missing work completely — on average results in four lost work days each year, presenteeism can actually be more financially detrimental to employers. A recent Global Corporate Challenge study on presenteeism showed that employees working through health conditions cost businesses the equivalent of three months per year in lost productivity.
An important aspect many employers don’t realize about presenteeism is that if an employee’s medical condition isn’t identified or treated proactively, it could worsen and lead to continued lost productivity or a disability leave down the line. With the increased focus on the cost of employee health overall — including employer-sponsored health plans and escalating benefit costs — it’s important for employers to understand how presenteeism could be affecting their workforce and how to provide assistance to employees who may be affected.
To help address presenteeism in the workplace, employers can create a program that helps manage absence and disability in the workplace. Here are a few aspects to consider when doing so:
- Partner with a disability insurance carrier
Many employers are surprised to learn that their disability insurance carrier can help provide a proactive approach to address presenteeism. Some carriers can deploy a disability management expert, such as a nurse or vocational consultant, to work directly with an employer to help identify employees who may need assistance and determine the support they may need to stay at work and be able to return to prior levels of productivity.
- Be open-minded with accommodations
While accommodations may seem like a nice-to-have amenity, there are numerous obligations due to the ADA Amendments Act that require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with health conditions in the workplace. Exploring different accommodation options can require flexibility, creativity and open-mindedness to develop a solution that works for both the employer and employee.
Consider this example of how an employee was helped through accommodations provided by his employer’s disability carrier. A federal public school program coordinator would spend hours in the car traveling from school to school, and then late nights in the office typing up reports and filing paperwork. Because of long periods of sitting, he began to experience acute sciatica and lower back pain. This pain made it difficult to focus on tasks for any substantial period of time and, as a result, the employee’s productivity suffered.
Consultants from his disability insurance carrier helped connect the employee with a local occupational therapist to help assess the employee’s workplace and observe how the employee functioned within the environment. The disability consultant and the occupational therapist collaborated on suitable accommodations that would fit the needs of the employee and integrated well with the workplace. Ultimately, the consultant recommended a three-stage workstation to offer more sit and stand flexibility for the program coordinator throughout the day. The evaluation also suggested an ergonomic keyboard and chair fitted to the employee’s body to help alleviate the employee’s wrist and back pain.
In this situation, a major benefit of partnering with a disability carrier was the employer being able to work on cost-effective solutions that were tailored to meet its employee’s circumstances.
- Leverage existing resources
Disability carrier consultants can help employers use existing resources that could help boost workplace productivity, curb costs and keep employees on the job. These consultants can work in tandem with other employee health-related resources an employer already has, including wellness, employee assistance and disease management programs, to determine the best options for an employee who is suffering from a medical condition.
- Create a culture of acceptance
And ultimately, it’s important for an employer to foster a culture of acceptance to help ensure an employee working with a disability doesn’t feel labeled by his or her condition in the workplace. By implementing a disability management program and providing accommodations, you can show an employee that you’re hoping to make his or her experience at work a healthy and positive one.
No person, disability or accommodation is the same. Through a partnership with a disability carrier, an employer can work to determine a general process for detecting, monitoring, addressing and helping an employee with a health condition be healthy and productive in the workplace. Taking a proactive approach not only benefits the employee, it can help save the employer money and reduce the burden on HR for the long-term.
Jeffery D. Smith is the Workplace Possibilities program practice consultant for Standard Insurance Co. To comment, email email@example.com.