Your bad work environment may be raising your healthcare costs

If you want to reduce the cost of healthcare for your employees — while simultaneously improving care — you may need to take a serious look at your work environment. When reviewing areas that could help reduce costs, a much overlooked aspect is a stressful work environment.

While employers have done a lot to reduce the risk of potential injuries in the workplace, they have done far less to reduce stress, which could also be harmful.

Research finds a link between employee health and job performance. There also is a growing body of research documenting the relationship between a stressful work environment and a range of chronic conditions — including depression, hypertension and sleeping problems. But employers often struggle to connect the dots between these health concerns and supporting a healthy environment for employees.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to manage something that remains unmeasured. That’s why measuring outcomes beyond healthcare cost fluctuations, such as absence, periods of work disability and job performance, can help employers understand a broader range of outcomes important to the successful operation of their business.

See also: Employee stress costing employers billions in lost productivity

When employers ask how they can affect the health of their employees, I ask what they know about the working conditions in their organization. Is there management trouble, high turnover, high illness-related absence or low job satisfaction? Some of this can be determined from employee satisfaction surveys, or analyses of sick leave data and work disability claims. Often, even more can be discovered by gathering employee feedback.

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For example, listening to employees, equipping them with the knowledge to recognize safety issues and providing the tools or procedures to correct these issues, were key to improving workplace safety. A successful safety review can result in real change. Employees observe this change and a cycle is created where prevention becomes the focus because all are accountable and all have trust based on experience that their identification of potential or real safety issues will be dealt with effectively.

If employers are unaware of the factors in their own work environment that could be modified to lessen psychosocial stressors, a good place to start is by listening to employees. Many employers already conduct job satisfaction surveys or health risk appraisals that provide some information around work and health issues. These same tools could be used to identify and address psychosocial issues in the workplace.

Whatever the channel — a suggestion box, a designated HR representative, a focus group, a survey — it must provide employees with the opportunity to authentically and safely share their perspectives. And, finally, it must be demonstrably legitimate, resulting in employer actions that are clear and meaningful to all.

Typically employers use health and wellness programs in an attempt to remediate rather than prevent illness. Our interviews with medical directors of some of the leading U.S. corporations revealed a similar finding. Often, the medical director or chief health officer is charged with improving employee health, while the HR benefits manager is charged with reducing healthcare costs. Not surprisingly, these two goals can be at odds with each other. Imagine the company with a large percent of untreated depression.

So how can employers know what works or even what to try?

Evaluators often start their work by asking why particular activities, services or coverage types were chosen or implemented. This helps identify those areas more proximal to the employment setting (something about the job or in the work environment, for instance) and those areas more distal to the employment setting (such as medication formulary). To put a fine point on the problem, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, notes that “putting a nap pod into a workplace is not going to substitute for the fact that people aren’t getting enough sleep because they are working 24/7.”

Those looking to get started might begin by watching "Working on Empty," an 11-minute documentary, which can provide solid direction for the type of information you’re seeking from your employees. Honor their voice and insight, and use it to implement real change. In doing so, you will build trust and a channel for contribution that improves outcomes for employees and employers.

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