Is Work Making Workers Sick?

Stress-related health problems in the workplace continue to be the most commonly reported among employees, and more employers are addressing these issues through preventive wellness initiatives.

October 4, 2013

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, gastrointestinal disease and back pain are among the top 10 health problems reported by employees, making stress-related and preventable health ailments among the most prevalent in the workplace, according to a recent report from employee assistance provider ComPsych Corp.

Employers are turning to preventive wellness initiatives to fight employees’ health problems, as the effects can harm workplace productivity and increase health care costs for the organization.

Ford Motor Co., for example, recently launched a two-year wellness pilot program in Detroit that offers workers incentives to have cholesterol-level screenings and examinations for colon, breast and cervical cancers.

For Ford, employees with poorly managed chronic conditions cost eight to 10 times more than employees in good health, the automaker said in a news release. To bring its health costs down, Ford is personalizing health care goals from specific physician recommendations.

“I think we’re in the middle of a sea change as it relates to employee engagement and wellness,” said Chirs Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse, which recently changed its name from Virgin HealthMiles. “Wellness programs that keep employees motivated daily, in ways that are individualized to help each employee meet their own unique health and wellness goals both at work and at home, are the best ways to ensure employees make healthy behavior changes that last.”

Health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be exacerbated in the workplace, with more than 42 percent of a person’s food intake being consumed outside of the home, which is affecting a person’s sodium, caloric and preservative intake, said Michele Dodds, vice president of health and wellness for Chicago-based ComPsych.

In addition, with employee anxiety, depression and headaches also listed among the top 10 health problems in the workplace, the pressures and stresses associated with being at work and in the workforce in general can affect an employee’s overall demeanor.

“There is an uncertainty about what is happening in the world,” Dodds said. “People are worried about retirement, worried about finding a job, and are worried about the economy as a whole. Any time people feel a lack of control, this creates stress.”

The most commonly reported workplace health problems, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, are a reflection of primary health issues affecting the U.S. as a whole, where 65 percent of the adult population is considered overweight or obese, Dodds said.

“We just don’t move as much,” Dodds said. “Sodium intake and lack of exercise contribute to a lot of these — high cholesterol is impacted by diet and age, and obesity can contribute to the back pain. Gastrointestinal disease is also impacted by our eating habits.”

With more than 80 percent of employers implementing a wellness program of some kind, many employers are becoming better able to develop preventable wellness initiatives and reinforce positive workplace behaviors to reduce common health ailments, Dodds said.

“Companies need energized, innovative, productive and engaged employees to power their business,” Boyce said. “The best way to do this is to better understand your employees and offer health and wellness benefits that support them both at work and beyond. Ultimately, employees should be striving to help employees engage more on the job by helping improve their total quality of life.”

In addition to the diet-related health problems, the report found that 33 percent of employees reported feeling tense or anxious at work, and 63 percent of workers eat no more than two daily servings of fruits and vegetables, which could contribute to gastrointestinal problems.

Allergies, asthma, depression and diabetes rounded out the top 10 employee health problems, with high blood pressure taking the No. 1 spot, according to the report.

“We’re facing a true workplace engagement crisis, and I’m not sure most people understand how much that impacts the health and well-being of employees,” Boyce said. “In order to overcome the crisis and create a healthy, productive workforce, I can't stress enough the importance of showing your employees you care about them as people, not just employees.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is Workforce’s former editorial intern. Comment below or email DuBois-Maahs on Twitter at @JessDuBoisMaahs.