Heart smart

March 1, 2004 By    

If you think that offering health insurance to your employees is the only thing you need to do for their health, think again. Each year, employee health problems cost American employers a fortune in spiraling health insurance costs, absenteeism and lost productivity.

You don’t have to build a gym or provide a full cafeteria menu of health food meals. But a growing number of companies – including propane retailers – are promoting wellness and employee assistance programs as a way to improve health habits and save themselves a pile of cash.

According to health experts, fatigue, stress, and depression are the three major culprits that diminish your workers’ job performance. The Institute for Health and Productivity Management reports that U.S. employers now spend an average of $12,000 a year per employee on health and disability costs, most of which are related to these three conditions. In addition, these and other common health conditions cost employers an estimated $180 billion in lost time each year.

Workers who suffer from fatigue, stress, and/or depression take five times as many “personal days” during the year as do healthy employees.

Perhaps more alarming are what tired, stressed and/or depressed employees cost the workplace in low productivity while on the job. One report suggests the cost is slightly more than double the cost of absenteeism. In other words, paying unproductive workers to put in their eight hours costs twice as much as not having them at work and having to cover their work in other ways.

One example is the common cold, which is precipitated by fatigue and stress. The study found that the cost to U.S. businesses of employees with colds each year totalled almost $25 billion: $16.6 billion in lost productivity on the job and $8 billion in absenteeism costs.

There are three steps all workers need to take to reduce their susceptibility to fatigue, stress and depression: adequate sleep, healthy diet and moderate but regular exercise. This is where wellness programs come in.

A wellness program involves arranging for health experts to provide information to your employees on healthy lifestyles, including the importance of adequate sleep, healthy diet and regular exercise.

Some workers may also need professional counseling for issues that get in the way of a healthy lifestyle or may heighten sleep problems, stress and depression levels. Examples include divorce, financial difficulties and substance abuse addictions. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can help.

Assistance programs involve creating a partnership with a community agency to provide professional counseling services to employees in need of such support.


According to the National Safety Council‘s Safety & Health report, the cost of accidents worldwide in which employee fatigue plays a part exceeds $80 billion a year. In the United States, the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research estimates that businesses lose more than $150 billion a year in productivity as a result of employee fatigue.

Tired employees cost you money in several ways: increased workers’ compensation costs from accidents and injuries, increased healthcare costs and absenteeism from illness, reduced profits from lower levels of productivity, and lost customers from poor product quality and customer service (where employees are so tired that they just don’t care anymore).

“Lack of sleep leads to drowsiness during the daytime. Drowsiness leads to decreased motor performance, cognitive performance and reaction time,” explains James B. Maas, professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and author of the 1998 New York Times bestseller, “Power Sleep.”

“It can also lead to microsleep, where employees fall asleep for a second or two during the day without even realizing it.”

These problems have obvious consequences for safety and productivity among workers, especially those who drive. Drowsiness leads to problems in the office area as well.

“Drowsiness leads to reduced concentration, memory, communication skills, decision-making skills, and ability to handle complex tasks,” explains Maas. “Basically, even minimal sleep loss over the period of a few days will make you stupid.”

The problem is becoming epidemic. According to the Employee Benefit News, 47 percent of employees admitted experiencing episodes of serious fatigue at work during the previous three months. A survey conducted by the Better Sleep Council found that 31 percent of employees say lack of sleep affected their work.

A formal survey conducted by Maas found that 38 percent of employees admit to napping at work. “Most of them nap in break rooms, bathroom stalls, or in their cars in the parking lots so they won’t get caught,” he explains.

By far the most pervasive cause of employee fatigue is the simple fact that people do not arrange to get a full eight hours of continuous, restful sleep each night. Today’s fast-paced life is partly to blame, as two-income families burn the candle at both ends to meet responsibilities to their employers, their children, their housework, and themselves.

An even more pervasive culprit is the lure of technology – late night TV, videos, and Internet surfing. When Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, people slept an average of 10 hours a night. Today, the average is 6.8 hours, with fully one-third of the adult population trying to survive on six hours or less.

Other causes of fatigue can include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor (high-fat, high-sugar) diets, obesity, caffeine, lack of exercise, mental and emotional stress and sleep disorders.


A second serious workplace health and productivity problem is stress. Tagged “America’s Number One Health Problem” by Time magazine, statistics support the monicker:

  • The number of workers calling in sick due to stress tripled from 1997 to 2001.
  • More than half of the 550 million work days lost each year are due to stress.
  • The National Safety Council estimates that up to 1 million employee absences per day are for reasons related to stress.
  • The American Institute of Stress reports that stress contributes to 60-80 percent of all work-related injuries, and is a major factor in 40 percent of turnover.
  • ManagedComp, a workers’ compensation insurer, reports that up to a third of all workers’ compensation claims are attributable to job stress.
  • In 1983, the American Academy of Family Physicians estimated that two-thirds of all family doctor visits are stress-related. By 1999, the American Institute of Stress reported that 75-90 percent of primary care physician visits had stress as a major contributing factor.

Studies show this type of stress leads to serious problems, including cardiovascular disease, brain atrophy, reduced disease immunity, cancer, diabetes, excess body fat, muscle pain, headaches, bone loss, nutrient depletion, anxiety and depression.

Among the research findings:

  • A recent study at Ohio State University found an increased risk for cardiovascular disease among people experiencing even mild chronic stress.
  • Chronic stress can alter the structure and functioning of brain cells, leading to gradual brain damage and atrophy. One study suggested that stress causes the death of nerve cells responsible for memory. The loss, the study suggested, looked like the “death of neurons after a stroke or seizures.”
  • Stress can cause general weight gain. Increased levels of stress-generated cortisol and insulin send a signal to fat cells to retain their stores of fat. These cortisol levels also increase food cravings, causing people to over-eat. In one study, subjects who ate sensibly and exercised but had previously been unable to get rid of the “belly bulge” were able to do so only when they found ways to reduce stress in their lives.

The combination of inadequate sleep and excess stress can lead to depression, the third primary health problem linked to job performance. But the condition can also be brought on by certain working conditions.

In the book, “Healthy Work,” the authors report that 10 percent of employees in jobs with high demands with a lot of control (eg: managerial jobs) exhibited symptoms of depression. That rate shot up to 57 percent for employees in jobs with have high demands but low control (typical employee jobs).

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