A Simple Approach to Boosting Employees’ Health

A Simple Approach to Boosting Employees’ Health

The list of what makes workers sick and keeps them off the job keeps getting longer.

During 27 of my 35 years in journalism, I supervised people—anywhere from two to 32 people. I am convinced that the most difficult thing for most employees to do is get to work on time, work hard and do a good job, be kind and respectful to co-workers, not cause any trouble, then leave on time.

Don’t call your relatives in Montreal or Maine from work to save money on long-distance calls. If your train is always late, take an earlier train. Don’t edit your church bulletin on deadline. Don’t try beating your Pac-Man score while editing a feature. Follow the editorial chain of command in the newsroom.

That’s all I ever asked as a manager. But for many of the people I worked with, it was a real challenge. Maybe I asked too little. Maybe I hired the wrong people. Maybe I worked for the wrong companies.

I thought of those experiences recently after reading some of the latest research studies on what makes employees sick at work. You’d think it would be a virus or an expired dairy creamer. I’m wrong again.

A study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior looked at the link between workplace incivility and employees’ health status (bit.ly/2gPaTHA). Researchers defined incivility as “low-intensity deviant acts with ambiguous intent to harm.” In English, that’s when someone is rude or condescends to you, ignores you or belittles you. They defined health status as experiencing one of eight conditions: back pain, chest pain/shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling tired/having low energy, headaches, pain in arms/legs/joints, stomach/bowel problems and trouble sleeping. The researchers found that incivility, particularly by a person in authority to a subordinate, embarrasses the person on the receiving end and threatens his or her sense of belonging. Those reactions, in turn, lead to deterioration in health status.

A study in the Journal of Community Health examined the connection between perceived job insecurity and a variety of health risk factors (bit.ly/2zbMALs). The study is based on a survey of 17,441 adults age 18 or older. Nearly one-third—32.6 percent—suffered from perceived job insecurity. That meant they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that at some point over the past year, they were worried about being unemployed. The survey also asked them about their health risk factors. The study found that those who were worried about their jobs were more likely to be obese, sleep less than six hours a day, smoke on a daily basis, call in sick, exercise less, go to the emergency room, have headaches, suffer from neck or lower back pain, or have a serious mental illness. That’s just the short list.

A study in the journal Work and Occupations analyzed the correlation between workplace autonomy and worker well-being (bit.ly/2lno4AG). The study is based on a survey of about 19,000 employed adults in the United Kingdom. The researchers defined workplace autonomy as the level at which workers had control over their job (autonomy over tasks and conduct) and control over their schedules (autonomy over when and where they worked). The researchers defined well-being as employees’ satisfaction with their job, amount of leisure time and life in general. You already know the answer without reading any further, but please continue. Yup, you guessed it: Workers with more autonomy reported higher levels of well-being and, presumably, health status.

Some workplaces are so crappy that it’s healthier to be unemployed than to have a job there. A study in the International Journal of Epidemiology compared changes in health status of a group of 1,116 Brits based on changes in employment status (bit.ly/2we2Pot). The researchers used “allostatic load” as a proxy for health status. Allostatic load is a composite score of 12 biomarkers like cholesterol and blood pressure that, when combined, measure the health-related effects of workplace stress. They defined job quality as a combination of earnings, job security and work environment. Again, you know where this is going. Unemployed respondents who took poor-quality jobs had worse health scores than those who continued to be unemployed.

Read more from this issue

All of this adds to research that we reported in a previous column that connected employee health status to liking who you work with and having a happy significant other (bit.ly/2iGbQCu).

As it turns out, the expectations I had of my co-workers—be on time, work hard, do a good job, be nice to others, no drama and go home—was really a workplace wellness strategy. Do those things and many factors linked to poor health status disappear. Or, as the famed workplace wellness gurus Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Ted Theodore Logan put it so eloquently nearly 30 years ago, be excellent to each other.


In September, we talked about how the overuse of medical services and the use of services that don’t offer much clinical benefit drive up health care costs for employers (bit.ly/2hIqoB5). One of the things we said employers could do was get involved in the Choosing Wisely campaign. It’s a six-year-old campaign that encourages hospitals, doctors and patients to make smarter decisions about the care they provide and receive. Here’s why the business sector, which pays the bills, needs to take the wheel on this issue: Doctors aren’t. A survey of 600 physicians in both 2014 and 2017 found little difference in the level of awareness of the Choosing Wisely campaign. Results of the survey, conducted by the ABIM Foundation, which launched the campaign, appeared in the journal Health Affairs (bit.ly/2yYNxq0 ). The three most common reasons cited by the physicians surveyed in 2017 for ordering an unnecessary test or procedure were malpractice concerns (87 percent), desire for information to reduce uncertainty (84 percent) and “just to be safe” (78 percent). Just to be safe, employers should insist that the hospitals and doctors in their health plan provider networks participate in the Choosing Wisely program

David Burda (twitter.com/@davidrburda; dburda@msp-c.com) is editorial director, health care strategies, for MSP-C, where he serves as the chief health care content strategist and health care subject matter expert.

Related Stories