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Whirlpool Adds On-site Health Teams to Tackle Presenteeism

November 8, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Health Care Costs, Employee Assistance Programs, Health and Wellness
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Leaders at Whirlpool Corp. realized that getting their 20,000-plus U.S. employees to show up for work was only half the battle if emotional or physical ills eroded their efficiency and focus.

"We're a manufacturing company, so it all comes down to quality of product," says Debbie Brandt, a senior manager of health and wellness at the Benton Harbor, Michigan-based company. "Also the ability, from a safety perspective, for somebody to be truly engaged while they're here versus thinking about a sick parent at home or other things that might compete with their ability to be truly at work."

Brandt and her colleagues decided several years ago to more closely analyze the underlying workplace problem frequently dubbed presenteeism—simply put, workers reporting to work when they are distracted by illness or other stressors and thus not operating to their normal level of productivity. By identifying which maladies influence presenteeism and adding more support at the work sites, the maker of large appliances hopes to help its employees work at peak capacity, Brandt says.

Employers such as Whirlpool are increasingly recognizing that the costs of poor health exceed the physician and hospital bills involved, says Jerry Noyce, chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Health Enhancement Research Organization, or HERO. "This goes beyond health insurance," he says, "to improving the health of your employees as an important business objective."

The health research organization, working in conjunction with Brigham Young University researchers and Nashville, Tennessee-based wellness company Healthways Inc., published an analysis in October in the journal Population Health Management looking at the corrosive impact of health habits and other stressors on employee presenteeism. Adults who only occasionally exercised, for example, were 50 percent more likely to demonstrate the worst presenteeism compared with colleagues who exercised regularly, according to the analysis of nearly 20,000 employees at three companies.

Poor employee health costs the U.S. economy $576 billion annually, 39 percent of which can be attributed to lost productivity, including presenteeism and absent work days, according to an analysis released in September by the not-for-profit San Francisco-based Integrated Benefits Institute using its proprietary cost estimator.

Absent days are easier to measure, but presenteeism is potentially a more insidious and costly problem, says Kim Jinnett, the institute's research director. Employees typically show up even if they are feeling under the weather, she says. "So if you accumulate job-performance decrements over time, on average it's going to be a bigger driver of productivity loss than absence."

Whirlpool officials, working with the institute, took their first crack at assessing presenteeism in 2009, adding the institute's HPQ-Select questions to its employee health risk assessment, Brandt says.

The results: Presenteeism difficulties accounted for 53 percent of lost productivity costs running into the tens of millions annually, according to the analysis, which was based on feedback from nearly 14,000 employees. The three leading complaints linked to productivity issues were depression, fatigue and neck or back pain.

In response, Whirlpool leaders ramped up health support at their nine primary work sites. Starting in 2010, they added an onsite health coach, along with a part-time pharmacist and part-time employee assistance program counselor.

Employee assistance previously had been offered only by telephone, Brandt says. The pharmacist assists employees with any medication hurdles that might prevent them from taking their pills. "If somebody isn't adherent to their depression medication, are they going to be able to be present at work?" she asks.

Biometric screenings, which previously employees got only at their family doctor's office, are now offered twice annually at the work sites.

Above all, the goal is to foster employee trust. If the onsite employee assistance program counselor helps an employee find assisted-living services for a parent, that same individual might return later with a more personally sensitive mental health concern, Brandt says.

Whirlpool plans to conduct a detailed analysis on the first three years of presenteeism-related data once 2012 wraps up, Brandt says. But she believes that the company is making inroads in terms of catching issues that can jeopardize on-the-job effectiveness.

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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