How Much Health-Related Productivity Loss is Really Avoidable? And Why Should I Care??

by John E. Riedel

Study breaks new ground in calculating the "normal impairment factor."

John Riedel We know that poor health accounts for a considerable amount of productivity loss-anywhere from 1 ½ to 3 times direct medical costs.  The potential for disease prevention and disease management programs to reduce productivity loss has, for obvious reasons, caught the attention of healthcare purchasers.  But let’s be careful about making big claims to "recapture" productivity loss.  People find it tough to change health behaviors.  And, even if someone is perfectly healthy, they aren’t 100% productive 100% of the time!  (Possibly with the exception of the current reader.)

Although the association between poor health and reduced productivity is reportedly quite high, employers don’t know how much productivity loss can realistically be recaptured .  There is a need to quantify the portion of productivity loss that can be regained through health management strategies.

Without knowing that amount of impairment, employers and their population health management providers can’t set realistic objectives for their health and productivity strategies.  A recently published article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Riedel et al with StayWell Health Management) sheds some light on this issue.

The article, Use of a Normal Impairment Factor in Quantifying Avoidable Productivity Loss Because of Poor Health , found that the healthiest of employees lose 3.4% of productivity due to presenteeism (at work but not productive).  This we call the normal impairment factor or NIF.  The NIF amounts to almost $1,500 per year (based on the compensation and work days methodology used by the researchers) representing $450,000 annually for an employer with 300 workers.

The study tracked 10 common health risks including: alcohol use, back pain, driving risk, physical activity, well-being, stress, tobacco use, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.  The three main productivity drains were back pain, well-being, and stress.  But, as the following graph highlights, multiple risks are the huge drivers of lost productivity (click on the graphic to see a larger version).


This study provides one approach to estimating manageable productivity loss in the hope that additional research will build upon this concept.  In its current state, the research is useful for managing employer expectations about the achievable productivity gains that might be realized through health risk reduction programs.  And that is a reasonable way to help those of us in the field of population health management maintain a realistic perspective on how much productivity we can truly manage.

Read the full JOEM article here .

John Riedel MBA, MPH has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of disease prevention, consumer empowerment, and disease management.  He helped develop 14 community-based wholistic health centers. He has been on the forefront of translating workforce health into measurable productivity outcomes that resonate in the corporate executive suite.

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