Alternative Medicine May Increase Workplace Absenteeism

Study links use of mind-body practices for chronic conditions with more missed days of work.

Is your co-worker going to massage therapy at lunch to ease their arthritis pain or to hot yoga before work to lose weight and lower their blood pressure? Then you may not see them again for a few days and may have to pick up their slack.

A new study says the use of certain types of complementary and alternative medicine by employees with chronic medical conditions can lead to more days missed from work due to illness or injury.

The study’s counterintuitive results uncovered by researchers from the Columbia University School of Public Health in New York appeared recently in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The study is based on the researchers’ analysis of the use of CAM services and employment information reported to the National Center for Health Statistics in 2012 by about 10,000 people suffering from one or more of 13 chronic medical conditions.  The conditions included arthritis, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, hepatitis, high cholesterol, hypertension, hepatitis, coronary heart disease, asthma, chronic kidney disease, depression or substance abuse.

Some 72.3 percent of the employees, most of whom worked at private-sector companies, used dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals and herbs to help treat their chronic conditions. Meanwhile, 17.3 percent engaged in mind-body practices to help manage their illnesses. The mind-body practices used included yoga, tai-chi, qi-gong, meditation and biofeedback. Of those, yoga and meditation were the most prevalent CAM techniques used by the employees.

The researchers thought that the use of CAM services by employees with chronic medical conditions would be “associated with fewer numbers of sick days taken from work due to engagement in more preventive healthcare behaviors, thus having better health status.”

Some 47 percent of the employees reported not missing any days of work due to illness or injury over the most recent 12-month period, while 22 percent called in sick one to two days, 19 percent called in sick three to five days and 12 percent called in sick six or more days.

Turning the researchers’ hypothesis on its head, the analysis found that workers with chronic conditions who used CAM services had higher absenteeism rates than those who didn’t use them—13 percent higher for those who took dietary supplements and 55 percent higher for those who engaged in mind-body practices.

The researchers suggested that the cause might be that many employees using CAM services may be self-administering their non-traditional therapies rather than practicing them under the guidance of a licensed clinician or trained therapist, and inadvertently causing themselves more harm than good.

In a separate report, the National Center for Health Statistics said 59.3 million people age 4 or older spent $30.2 billion on CAM services in 2012 with most of that money going toward non-conventional practitioners ($14.7 billion) and natural product supplements ($12.8 billion), as reported earlier by Twin Cities Business.

As the rates of chronic diseases continue to rise and people increasingly turn to non-traditional medical therapies for help, the new study suggests that employers and their health plans take a more active role in overseeing what CAM services their workers are using if they want to keep them on the job.