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Cut health-care costs by reducing workplace stress


Experts tell us health-care costs will nearly double in the next few years, and alarm bells are ringing for companies that provide health insurance to their employees.

Until recently, it was thought that organizations could do little to curb this disturbing trend. The only cost-control options that seemed reasonable were defensive: reduce benefits or increase the portion of premiums charged to workers.

At some point, both of these options become counterproductive. Benefits can only be pared or premiums increased so much before people will opt out of insurance altogether. Corporate premium costs aside, this presents a huge problem for employers.

There are currently 44 million uninsured people in this country, 230,000 of whom live in Iowa. The numbers are expected to continue rising.

An uninsured worker is more likely to suffer a major illness than one who is insured, because uninsured people often don’t see their doctors until their health is seriously impaired. A prime example: the heart attack that could have been prevented with a blood pressure check during a routine physical exam.

Moreover, worker illness affects productivity by increasing absenteeism and lowering work quality. The same worker who puts off seeing her doctor because she is uninsured will show up at work with untreated allergy symptoms or back pain because she cannot afford to treat these conditions.

Most of us have not traditionally focused on the impact employee health has on worker productivity. We should, because big sums are involved.

Worker turnover, for example, costs an average of one to one-and-a-half times the position’s annual salary. If we are paying Sam $20,000 per year and Sam leaves, it will cost us between $20,000 and $30,000 just to replace him. This is a hidden cost we do not always consider when reviewing corporate expenses. Because 40 percent of turnover is due to stress, stress-preventive interventions quickly become cost effective.

Management can positively influence worker health. Mounting evidence identifies stress as a key, controllable illness culprit. Much of that stress is workplace generated. Heart disease, for example, has been directly linked to workplace stress. In fact, eight of the nine leading causes of death are linked to stress.

Stress is implicated in an estimated 75-90 percent of all visits to primary-care providers. Those visits, along with resulting prescriptions for medications, drive up premium costs. An estimated 50 percent of worker absenteeism tracks to stress, and such absenteeism costs employers just over $600 per employee per year.

Because stress is such an integral part of the wellness picture, there are strong business reasons to focus on its reduction. Stress management training is a good start. The data also indicate stress can be greatly reduced if we look at the way jobs are structured, and if we introduce leadership training that focuses on ways management can reduce worker stress.

Our responses to spiraling health-care costs are not as limited as we might think. People in leadership positions absolutely can (and already do) influence worker health. A number of companies have proved that this is so.

Rising health-care costs will erode profits and threaten the very survival of many small and mid-sized companies in the years ahead. It is time for a proactive approach. Stress-reduction-based interventions can enhance both health and productivity, while helping us control rising premiums.

At the same time, such interventions show employees that management cares about their well-being. People are more loyal when they believe management cares. Supporting employee health is a win-win step for everyone.

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