Does Your Company Suffer From Low Productivity?

Look no further than the health of your employees for some help

Any successful leader will be able to give several possible reasons for low productivity in employees.  Anything from poor top-down communication, poor morale, burnout or even low employee buy-in of corporate culture.   However, a very often forgotten and overlooked area that greatly affects productivity is employee health.  Employee health has come under more scrutiny in recent years.  Even some ground breaking research is coming out on “presenteeism” (being at work but not productive) and how much it can cost an employer.   However, it is still primarily seen as a means to reduce health expenditure of a corporation, but not so much for its effect on productivity.  Lets look at it a bit differently today.

The top three health related reasons for low productivity

Head and Neck Pain

As a business owner, director, manager or even just an employee have you ever stopped to think about how much your daily health affects your ability to work?  You might start to think about heart disease, cancer, diabetes or even pregnancy.  Really, you would be missing the primary reasons for low productivity.  No one thinks about these common things.  How about on any given Monday morning – when all the “fun” of the weekend catches up with you – when you just don’t feel 100%?  (Lets face it, how often does anyone feel 100% on a Monday morning huh?).   What about how many of your employees are dealing with the common effects of things like arthritis (which can start as early as the 30’s in some people).  There are hundreds of things that may seem minor and common to most people that will have a major focus on an employee’s ability to focus and perform.  We have all felt it, but often never think to do anything about it.  It is so common it is just over seen and forgotten.

Headaches, neck pain or both at the same time are a very common affliction in the workplace today.  Tension headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, “pinched nerve”, “tech neck”, whiplash, stress headache and several other names could be used in this group.  Think about the last time you had a headache or stiff neck at work.  How did that day go for you?  Rates very, but approximately 45% of employees have at least one headache at work monthly.  While some report headaches ever other day or more.  Productivity losses of a quarter day per month up to 7.6 days per month due to headaches have been reported.  Now, of course, not everyone with a headache will lose the equivalent of seven-and-a-half days (!!) of work from headaches; but the importance of these stats are to show it is a real problem.

Even at a quarter a day per month, if you had 100 employees and 45 of them lost a quarter of a day that is just over 11 days of missed productive work, EVERY MONTH, 132 missed days A YEAR.  This is just headaches.  However, no one reports headaches, no one mentions it to employers.  Employees should just work through it, right?

Back Pain

In all reality, we could just substitute the words ‘headache’ or ‘neck pain’ in the above section with ‘back pain’ and move on to item #3.  Really.  But . . . If you have read any of my other posts you know that I like to really get my message across.

Back pain is a very common problem.  To be honest, I am dealing with a small bout of it myself as I sit here and write this.  Yep, even me, a physical therapist has back pain (actually, back pain is very common among PT’s).  Research has rates all over the place, but the common thread is that most people will get about one episode of back pain a year.  While many will deal with chronic episodes.  If you think I am just making this stuff up then ask yourself why we are facing a national opioid crisis?  What have many of those pain killers been given out for?  Yep, chronic back pain.

Even though the rates are likely similar with neck issues as stated above, I want to illustrate this a bit differently.  Several months back I was working on a presentation for some potential clients.  What I found was just astounding.  On average, a case of work related back pain will cost an employer $38,000 (National Safety Council, 2005).  This does include medical care, time off and overall productivity loss.  It was also stated that at any given moment at least 1 in every 100 employees will be dealing with a significant bout of back pain annually.  So if you employ 300 employees – it will likely cost you $114,000 a year.  These are all just averages. Lets say you just happen to be lucky one year and have 5-6 people dealing with back pain?  Or maybe you have a few employees with real bad cases; that leads down the path of surgery and medications?  Can you start to see how this can affect productivity?

Focusing on work related tasks is only as good as our well-being will allow.  It is very well documented that our aliments and physical status will change our ability to focus.   One last thought before we move on to the third topic; it is also common for people to have both neck and back pain at the same time due to how the spine is connected to itself.

Shoulder pain

By now I assume you are getting the picture.  As with headaches at work, neck and back pain at work a common additional ache comes from the shoulders.  You may be thinking this only applies to heavy labor like construction or furniture movers.  While it is true heavy labor jobs have a certain risk of injury, productivity is affected from aches and pains in shoulders in all types of work; even desk jobs!  After about an hour at your desk have you ever started to move around, maybe even squirm, shake your hands or shrug your shoulders?  Why did you do this?  Because over time your body became tired of being in the position.  You have to work though right?  So you just go back to that position for another hour, maybe even two this time.  Then you repeat for 40 hours a week.  Just the simple task of moving a computer mouse around for several hours each day can be very taxing on your shoulder.

There is a great deal of muscle use in trying to get that mouse pointer exactly were it belongs.  Your shoulder has to stabilize your arm, your elbow has to stabilize your wrist and your wrist and hand have to move the mouse.  Your neck has to help stabilize your shoulder and shoulder blade as well (oh snap, you mean my shoulder pain could cause neck pain that could cause a head ache?).  How easy will it be to keep up with productive work on the computer when your arm gets tired, how about when that tired feeling changes to pain?

Work related or not, it does not matter

How your employee got hurt or what the main cause of the pain is not our topic for this post.  That would certainly be a good question for another day though (or certainly reach out in person and we can talk).  As far as productivity is concerned, it doesn’t even matter if it happened at work, at the employees home or while they were competing in the annual Skijoring competition (yes, that is real thing). If your employees are in pain it will reduce productivity, plain and simple.

We could go on to investigate how work related injuries are different from those outside of work.  Again, another topic in itself.  The questions should be, does this concern you and are you concerned for the well being of your employees?  Any efforts to improve the well being of your employees will ultimately improve productivity.  If consider some of the numbers discussed already and how much all of that could be costing your company.  What do you have to loose?  Just more money 🙂

What to do about it

Lets keep things symmetrical, we talked about 3 health related reasons for low productivity so now lets go over 3 simple ways to start reducing employee aches and pains at work.

  1. Active employees
  2. Realistic expectations of the unwell
  3. Top-down open communication (especially with teams with highest work related injuries)

Active employees

As humans we need to move.  Many of our chronic aches and pains (as well as many major health conditions) are due to inactivity.  It is not that sitting or standing are bad by themselves, it is the cumulative time doing so.  Your employees need reasons to get out of their chairs and offices and move.  I love the new office floor plans being integrated these days, eliminating offices and cubicles for group workspaces.  Limiting assigned spaces forcing employees to move around and interact.  This is also know as “Activity-based” working design.  This does not mean that you need to overhaul the entire office however.  This could be as simple as a series of employee education meetings combined with thoughtful workflows to integrate getting up and collaborating instead of finding ways to be stuck in front of a screen all day long.

Now, if your employees are in production, also remember that the human body likes a variety of movement.  Cross-utilization is a great solution.  Employees may work part of the day doing one process then switching to something else with different movement patterns.

Realistic expectations of the unwell

Why is it that most people will still go to work even when they are super sick?  We have all done it right, downed some DayQuil and Tylenol to cut a fever and reduce aches just to get to work.  How about those that come in a day or two after surgery or a major injury?  It is actually fairly common, but why?  For the most part, employees are dedicated to their job and do not want to lose it.  Fear is great motivator.  On the flip side, how many employers have you had that clearly state their expectations of employees when they are hurt or sick, I talking beyond the sick day benefit.  What kind of wellness culture do you want at your company?  Do you want sick and hurt employees at work, especially considering the risk they pose to other employees?  When was the last time you expressed (or had expressed for you) your real concern for employee well-being and a desire that they be well and productive at work.  Would it be more worth it to the company to allow a day or two leeway when an employee needs it than to have them feel guilty for missing any work but then losing 6-7 days of productivity over a months time even though they did not technically take a day off.

Top-down open communication

I know this is all starting to sound more like marriage counseling than improving productivity. However, this is about how your employees FEEL at work and how it is effecting their work.  You will never fully understand the aches and pains of employees until you try to understand what they are really going through.  I am not suggesting that you have sit down therapy sessions with each employee to understand all their feelings.  What I am suggesting is that during performance reviews and other meetings it would go very far to occasionally spend time learning what aches, pains, discomforts, etc are common day to day.  Get supervisors and mangers to help out.  Just think of what that alone could do for morale not to mention productivity.  Most employees are going to be afraid to speak out about small daily things that cause them discomforts, they just keep dealing with them until it becomes a big problem (all the while, productivity continues to get chipped away).  It could be something as simple as asking

“Hey, we at XYZ Inc are concerned about your well-being in general and while at work. Can you tell me a few things you feel while working?  Like headaches or back pain?”

More than likely just starting this conversation will open doors to all kinds of useful information.  Information that can then be used in wellness initiatives.  Of, course, like a good marriage, this will only work if the employees trust that they can be open with the employer.

Professional help need not be expensive

There are certainly many other ways to help reduce employee pain at work.  I hope to discuss many more in future posts.  Some solutions may be best left to professionals. Yes, like myself.  We can’t get your employees to trust you and we can’t be the ones setting workplace expectations.  We can, however, offer solutions to reduce the aches.  Assist in getting employees moving.  Most certainly giving educational seminars to employees about neck, back and shoulder pain and how they can help themselves.  We can give professional advice.   We can help you develop realistic expectations.  We can help you look at your health claim data and understand what it means.  We can help you develop a better wellness culture.  The best part is that most of these solutions need not be expensive, or at least much less than what is being lost due to bad productivity.  If you could spend $2000-3000 to prevent losing $38,000 for every 100 employees would you not do it?  and it your costs were even lower?

This really only works well when you have professionals that work with you to give you customize services.  If you happen to be a large scale national or international corporation, then maybe you need help from one of those full package wellness companies.  Realistically though, for mid and small sized companies that are willing to understand their employees and their well-being, customized (a-la-carte) solutions can make a huge difference without the major price tag.

Thanks for sticking with the post today.  Best of luck in your efforts to help your employees feel better and work better.  As always, it would be our honor to speak with you and assist in any way we can.  Email us anytime.