January 2018: Discomfort’s Tax on Health and Productivity
- Your resolute author noticed this interesting article in EHS Today: “Bad Posture Habits Lead to a Decrease in Productivity” which reported that “Nearly half of the adult labor force in the United States suffers from head, back or neck pain, and a new study shows the reason why posture could be keeping workers from getting the job done.“
So what is a habit? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “habit” as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance“.
Our most successful clients tell us that (1) generating a solid return from Office Ergonomics is largely centered around the employee behaviors of posture and pacing and how (2) successful EHS professionals use engineering and administrative controls to encourage neutral postures and microbreaks which allow time, during work, to reoxygenate cells and time for removal of waste products such as CO2 and lactic acid which naturally accumulate from activity.
Most importantly, they understand that you can’t simply tell someone in an eLearning video or follow-up emails to change their behavior and then, poof, it’s done. Psychology knows that behavior change requires operant conditioning and positive reinforcement coaching in real-time until the desired behavior is learned and automated. Otherwise, after one or two online training courses we would all be expert golfers and musicians.
What Can I Do?
As a dedicated professional, you’re focused on reducing risk as a top objective within the goal of reducing or even eliminating injuries for your knowledge workers (people using computers as an integral tool in their work).
Would you be interested in very clearly and comfortably having your Office Ergonomics Program pay for itself? There are at least four objectively quantifiable primary areas which can provide this documentation but you’ll have to do some work to make it happen and accurately report on it like anything of value in this life. This article is about one of these four primary areas.
We ask the question of your interest because the majority of EH&S/Risk professionals are just too busy, short-staffed and overwhelmed to even think about approaching the opportunity. This is reminiscent of the timeless story of the earnest farmer who works his fields personally by hand and can do tremendously better with a tractor to work his fields but feels he cannot afford one. The new tractor would generate much more than it cost but he’s too busy just keeping up with things to find time to investigate, plan it out and make it happen.
Adding It Up
An obvious metric of ergonomic injury costs certainly includes lost days due to discomfort and injury. This is commonly added, within any serious calculation of the total cost of injuries, to replacement and retraining costs, healthcare costs and increased insurance costs, and other costs.
While those well-understood costs have been and continue to be increasing, what about the employees who are on the job while in discomfort or pain?
Presenteeism is the modern term for attending work (at home or in the office) while in discomfort and/or pain. A number of major studies have been published, over the past decade, which have examined this topic with tens of thousands of employees at multiple employers.
An example recent research project “Health and Productivity as a Business Strategy” (J Occup Environ Med. 2009;51:411–428), studied over 15,000 full-time employees at multiple employers and the annual total costs for medical, pharmacy and productivity.
Consistent with other recent studies, the authors confirmed: Health-related productivity costs are significantly greater than medical and pharmacy costs alone (on average 2.3 to 1). Chronic conditions such as back/neck pain are especially important causes of productivity loss. The authors concluded: A strong link exists between health and productivity. Integrating productivity data with health data can help employers develop effective workplace health human capital investment strategies.
Today, employers are increasingly focused on workforce health as healthcare premiums continue to inflate unbounded with no end in sight. In many cases, they have tried to reduce their burden through increasing the portion of those costs passed through to employees. The previously cited study explained: The approaches that many employers have taken may have actually created the opposite of their intended effect: By shifting costs to employees they have created barriers to access that lead to delay of care, which in the end worsens clinical outcomes and negatively impacts productivity.
This data is quite compelling on its own but when you note that the previously cited study was published a few years ago, consider the direction of healthcare premium and utilization costs since then as well as the proportion of these costs passed on to employees now.
Clients Observe and Mobilize
In fact, we have increasingly heard observations from our clients that, with employees bearing more and more of the costs of healthcare insurance and utilization, employees are becoming more and more reluctant to raise the pain or injury flags until such a stage within the pathology of an injury where intervention costs are great and the likelihood of success is greatly diminished.
- To compound matters worse, you’ll commonly notice a lot of presenteeism in times of economic challenge, when employers are downsizing, trying to cut costs and become more efficient. This kind of environment compels employees to feel they’re unable to take time off for health reasons and so they work through the discomfort and pain.
Much of the initial momentum of our clients was initially fueled by their common focus on identifying a practicable data-driven model of Office Ergonomics Risk Management. In most cases, they had existing ergonomic programs in place and were seeking a cohesive bonding platform to connect their excellent yet siloed assets and resources.
Our clients identified the challenge of developing long-term positive behavioral change in employees regarding posture and pacing and needed an enterprise platform to consistently empower employees, thereby integrally including them in the solution, as well as empowering their professionals who manage the ergonomic process within their organizations.
Case Study Mitigation Results
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