Employee Physical and Mental Health and Company Support are Biggest Drivers of Workplace Productivity Per New Study in JOEM


Employees lose the equivalent of 31.2 working days per year due to health-related issues. The top three direct and indirect influences are mental health, job characteristics and physical health according to a new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Educational Medicine by researchers from Vitality Group, Cambridge University and Charles University. The analysis of more than 30,000 employees across 173 organizations that participated in Vitality’s annual Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey assessed the influence of employees’ lifestyle, commuting time, physical and mental health, well-being, job and workplace environment on productivity levels.

The study found that, controlling for personal characteristics, mental and physical health account for more than 84% of the direct effects on productivity loss. In addition, 93% of the indirect influences are mediated through mental and/or physical health, meaning that even job or workplace factors, such as job satisfaction, support from managers or feeling isolated ultimately affect productivity through mental and/or physical health.

“At first glance, the results may not be surprising as we’ve known for some time that the way companies operate has a direct impact on employee health, but also that employee health directly impacts the success of companies,” said Francois Millard, SVP and Chief Actuarial Officer at Vitality Group. “What’s concerning is that despite these identified issues, organizations continue to spend billions of dollars on addressing the symptoms related to physical and mental health rather than the causes.”

These insights represent an important step towards understanding and addressing presenteeism—being present at work but not performing productively—and absenteeism in the workplace, as they more comprehensively capture factors that in isolation might appear to be important, but in a combined model become insignificant. In the US, poor health costs employers $530 billion and 1.4 billion workdays of absence and impaired performance annually according to the Integrated Benefits Institute, a health and productivity research organization.

“While the fundamental conclusion of this analysis is not unexpected, it’s still important as much of the effect of the workplace on productivity is impacted by physical and mental health,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, PhD, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and bestselling author. “Workplaces are making people sick (along with the managers who also do the same thing), adversely affecting people’s ability to work. And as the study points out, interventions to improve health that do not attack the root causes of ill-health are going to be less effective or ineffective. It’s particularly important to focus on health as an intermediate outcome and show the costs of ill-health, but even more critical to look not only at the effects on productivity, but the impact on people’s well-being.”

Martin Stepanek, a study author, researcher for the Charles University in Prague, and research fellow with RAND Europe commented, “Our analysis highlights that while physical and mental health are the ultimate determinants of employee productivity, healthy work environment and supportive management play an essential role in the process. In addition to medical benefit packages and assistance programs, employers need to focus on building a supportive management culture and inclusive work atmosphere and bolstering employee job satisfaction.”

Bob Chapman, Barry-Wehmiller CEO said, “A major healthcare institution recently shared their finding that the person you report to at work is more important to your health than your family doctor. Clearly, the way we lead—the way we treat people at work each day—impacts the way they live, especially their health and wellbeing! Unfortunately, the majority of the workforce goes home every day feeling like they work for a company that doesn’t care about them. I believe we could change this tomorrow if leaders simply embraced the profound power of genuinely caring for the people they have the privilege of leading.”

Health has long been recognized as central to sustainable development, yet, with important exceptions, businesses have been slow to embrace the potential for mutual benefit to profitability and to society that could be achieved by companies more explicitly and actively addressing health. Investors and companies can take advantage of a report Vitality helped develop which provides a roadmap for reporting on health. It outlines how corporations can measure and report on health in ways that transcend the traditional focus on occupational safety and health issues.

“With the recent announcement that the World Health Organization is adding burn-out as an occupational phenomenon, the impact of work-health interactions will become even more visible in the future,” said Millard. “Initiatives such as the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey provides companies the practical tools to measure and manage organizational and individual influences on health.”

The Next Leading Cause of Death: The Workplace?

To help employers better understand the problem and offer practical solutions, Vitality hosted a webinar last week. The discussion led by Vitality USA CEO Tal Gilbert with Bob Chapman and Jeffrey Pfeffer explored the not-so-hidden dangers of the workplace and why employers need to provide more than discounted gym memberships to their workers to keep them healthy. Listen to the recording here.

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