absenteeism workplace wellness

CDC: Chronic Illness Leads to Absenteeism, Higher Employer Costs

One area that a well-run workplace wellness program is designed to address is the connection between absenteeism and employer cost.

We address the important topic regularly, including this week as we’ve noted that the Research Center of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned FTI Consulting Inc.’s Center for Healthcare Economics and Policy (“Center”) to collaborate with the Chamber on the development of data and analyses for the Nashville Region Health Competitiveness Initiative.

Now a very useful study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examines “the association between employee absenteeism and 5 conditions: 3 risk factors (smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity) and 2 chronic diseases (hypertension and diabetes).”

The study is titled “Absenteeism and Employer Costs Associated With Chronic Diseases and Health Risk Factors in the US Workforce.”

It notes that “Since the 1980s, the prevalence of chronic diseases and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors among American adults has increased. For instance, in 1980, the prevalence of hypertension was 24% and diabetes prevalence was below 3%; however, by 2012 the prevalence of hypertension was 29% and diabetes 9%. In the US working population, one-third of adults are obese, approximately 1 in 5 is a smoker, and more than half do not meet physical activity recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes obesity, tobacco use, and physical inactivity as ‘winnable battles.’ Winnable battles are public health priorities for which effective evidence-based interventions exist and could be broadly implemented to bring about large reductions in illness and death.”

“Employers are interested in reducing rates of chronic disease and reducing health risk factors because employers bear about 58% of total employee medical costs. Compared with their counterparts, employees who have chronic diseases and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors have higher medical costs, miss more workdays, and are potentially less productive at work. The increasing age of the labor force may increase the prevalence of these conditions and their associated costs. In light of these considerations, many employers have adopted workplace wellness programs to improve health-related behaviors and reduce the incidence of chronic conditions.”

The study’s objective was “to estimate the association between absenteeism and 5 conditions: 3 risk factors (obesity, smoking, physical inactivity) and 2 chronic diseases (hypertension and diabetes). We applied the same method and regression framework to all conditions and analyzed absenteeism in 2 of the most commonly used data sources for health care costs — health risk appraisals (HRAs) from a large privately insured claims database (MarketScan) and a nationally representative health expenditure survey (the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey [MEPS]).”

The results were astounding:

“We estimated that absenteeism costs associated with each of the 5 conditions — hypertension, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity — were greater than $2 billion per condition per year. Accounting for costs imposed by absenteeism will be useful in assessing the impact of programs and policies that affect the prevalence of these conditions. We cannot determine from these data whether employers bear this cost through lower profits or employees bear the cost through lower wages.”

Importantly, the study directly notes the benefits that can come from a well-run workplace wellness program:

“Workplace wellness programs have potential to reduce both medical and absenteeism costs. Although such programs, their comprehensiveness, and their potential returns vary, workplace programs are important partners in improving health. As an example, the American Heart Association reiterated in 2015 its commitment to workplace wellness as a way of improving cardiovascular health. While improving employee health and reducing absenteeism initially benefit employers and employees, a healthy workforce and an increase in productivity are national resources with benefits that extend beyond private sector employers and their employees.”