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Do your boss a favor, call in sick

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2004

SYRACUSE, N.Y American workers should stop trying to be heroes and just stay home when they're sick it could be cheaper for their employers, according to a study.

Workers who come in sick cost their employers an average of $255 each per year, according to Cornell University labor researchers.

Sick employees have difficulty concentrating, work more slowly and have to repeat tasks, bogging down productivity, according to the study. (They also get their co-workers sick, but those costs were not counted in the study.)

Economists refer to slack productivity from ailing workers as ''presenteeism,'' and the Cornell study said it may cost employers even more than absenteeism due to illness.

Other studies have suggested that presenteeism costs U.S. businesses $180 billion annually in lost productivity.

''The study doesn't mean people should stay home sick at every sniffle,'' said Ron Goetzel, director of Cornell's Institute for Health and Productivity Studies in Washington, which conducted the research.

''It says this is a very large category of expenses, even exceeding the costs of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits, and part of the problem is that employers have not yet fully recognized the financial impact it can have on their business.''

The impact of employee absenteeism is well documented. Figuring out how much it costs to come to work sick, however, has been more elusive, because of a lack of accepted measurement standards.

Lori Rosen, a workplace analyst for CCH Inc., a Riverwoods, Ill.-based trade group that does an annual nationwide survey on absenteeism, acknowledged presenteeism is a problem but said absenteeism still costs employers more, an average of $645 per employee per year.

''Presenteeism might be more costly if you have an employee start an epidemic and you knock out the whole office,'' Rosen said. ''With absenteeism, though, you have to consider overtime, hiring a temp, and a whole bunch of other costs besides the work not getting done.''

Goetzel said the Cornell study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, is the first to add the cost of on-the-job productivity losses from common health problems to an employer's total health-related expenses.

To obtain their figures, the Cornell researchers analyzed information from a medical database of about 375,000 employees. They combined the data with findings from five published productivity surveys for 10 health conditions that commonly affect workers.

The study found that presenteeism accounted for 61 percent, on average, of an employee's total medical and lost-productivity costs.

The researchers looked at such ailments as colds, the flu, headaches, allergies, arthritis, heart disease, asthma and cancer. At Dow Chemical Co., company officials began examining presenteeism about two years ago, surveying 12,000 workers, said Dr. Catherine Baase, director of health.

''I don't think many companies routinely measure, or even appreciate, all the dimensions of costs involved. I know we didn't until we began taking a closer look,'' Baase said.

Dow now includes presenteeism costs in its strategic planning and has started a program to educate workers about good health practices, Baase said.

On the Net:

Cornell Institute for Policy Research: http://www.ccpr.cornell.edu.

Integrated Benefits Institute: http://www.integratedbenefitsinstitute.org

Institute for Health and Productivity Management: http://www.ihpm.org

CCH Inc.: http://www.cch.com/



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