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Updated Jun 18, 2024

How to Reduce Sick Days by Encouraging a Healthy Workplace

Sick days cost U.S. companies billions of dollars each year. Here's how to reduce sick days and keep your employees well.

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Jennifer Dublino, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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Employee health is a priority for team members and businesses alike. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, business productivity losses caused by personal and family health problems cost United States employers $225.8 billion annually or $1,685 per employee. For a small company with 10 employees, that’s an average loss of $16,850 annually. 

Fortunately, a business can take concrete steps to improve employee health and reduce sick days, keeping operations moving steadily and providing an environment that fosters a healthy, energetic and engaged team. 

Did You Know?Did you know
Supporting employees' mental health is as crucial as fostering their physical health. Consider hiring a health professional to educate your team on improving self-care, reducing stress and preventing employee burnout.

How to reduce sick days

Here are 10 ways businesses can take action to reduce employee sick days.

1. Provide healthy, well-balanced food.

Many companies occasionally provide food for their employees to reward or motivate them. Often, these foods include pizza, doughnuts, ice cream or other unhealthy options. While treats have their place, providing healthy, well-balanced choices can give employees the fuel they need to perform at optimal levels at work and off the clock.

2. Encourage healthy eating among your employees.

Encourage habitual healthy eating to benefit your employees’ long-term health. For example, provide creative perks like employee discounts at health food stores and restaurants and coupons for wellness products. 

3. Create an environment for employee exercise.

If you have room, turn an area of your workplace into an exercise space. You don’t have to offer anything extravagant to make a difference. Setting up basic exercise equipment — including workout mats, exercise balls and dumbbells — can encourage hard-working employees to take some time for themselves during their workday. Consider installing bike racks in your employee parking lot to inspire people to bike to work and install a shower in one of the bathrooms so they can refresh after a workout.

4. Use meetings and retreats to encourage healthy lifestyles.

Anytime employees gather for a special meeting or company getaway, use the opportunity to encourage healthy living habits. Discuss improvements employees have made in their lives and celebrate their progress. For motivation, ask employees who have made positive changes in their lives to share their stories with co-workers. You can also schedule retreats at health spas or gyms.

5. Institute a wellness program as an employee benefit.

Employer wellness programs help employees achieve health-related goals. Standard components include the following:

  • Stress-reduction programs
  • Weight loss programs
  • Smoking cessation programs
  • Health screenings
  • Exercise programs and activities
  • Nutrition education
  • Vaccination clinics

Typically, employers create the program based on their goals, employee input and budgetary constraints. Once the programs are created, leaders communicate the details to employees and may offer participation incentives. 

Although wellness programs have benefits and risks — as well as costs — when done right, they can reduce absenteeism, boost employee morale and make an excellent additional employee benefit worth touting during the hiring process.

TipBottom line
When designing a wellness program, be sure to adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act laws and other regulations.

6. Create an employee assistance program (EAP).

EAPs offer employees medical help and counseling when they are dealing with a stressful personal or family event, including financial hardship, severe medical problems, substance abuse and grief. 

Employees can speak privately with a third-party EAP counselor who can offer advice, referrals and follow-up services to help them resolve their issues. EAPs address problems proactively that could result in productivity-killing workplace stress, health concerns, distractions at work and missed work days.

7. Provide an ergonomic workplace that encourages wellness.

Medical professionals warn people about the dangers of sitting all day. But what can you do if your business requires employees to perform desk work? 

One solution is to create an ergonomic workplace. Providing employees with comfortable desk chairs with lumbar support, having standing or adjustable desks and using mouse pads with wrist support can decrease the incidence of back pain and wrist strain, including carpal tunnel syndrome. An ergonomic setup may even reduce your workers’ compensation costs.

Bottom LineBottom line
Ergonomically designed workstations can boost employee productivity and create a more efficient, engaged and alert team.

8. Increase flexibility about when and where employees work.

A Harvard Business School study found that employees’ mental health improves when companies let them control their work schedules. Flexible benefits can include the following: 

  • Permitting varied start and stop times (like coming in early and leaving early)
  • Allowing employees to trade shifts
  • Creating a remote work plan 
  • Enabling hybrid work 

Flexibility can improve employees’ physical and mental health and reduce employee turnover.

9. Give employees more autonomy.

When employees have high work demands and low job control, it hurts their mental health and reduces employee satisfaction. Allow employees to make more decisions without consulting a supervisor and empower them with more training and freer permissions. In addition to improving employee health, this flexibility can boost job performance.

10. Schedule employees consistently and predictably.

Many businesses, including retailers, restaurants and other service businesses, have variable schedules for hourly employees. Employees never know which days and hours they’re working from one week to the next, making it extremely difficult to manage their personal lives, especially for employees with children.

Additionally, variable working hours make income unpredictable and can lead to financial insecurity. Workers with erratic schedules may suffer from poor sleep quality and emotional stress. 

Giving workers a stable, predictable schedule benefits them and the company. A Stable Scheduling study found that when retailer Gap made this change, it experienced a 7 percent increase in sales and a 5 percent improvement in productivity.

How employee sick days affect businesses

Workplace absenteeism costs a business in several ways, including the following: 

  • Lowers productivity: When employees are out sick, at least some of the work they would typically do won’t get done. You may be able to reassign some work to other employees, but they likely won’t have the same depth of knowledge. Absences and product reassignments cause productivity to lag as tasks remain undone, partially done, incorrectly completed or accomplished more slowly. 
  • Lowers workplace morale: When an employee’s workload suddenly increases without a corresponding increase in pay because of a co-worker’s absence, they may feel burdened, leading to low morale. If that employee already has a heavy workload, heaping additional work on top can even lead to employee burnout. This situation is highly undesirable for both the employee and the company.
  • Can increase health insurance costs: Health insurance costs can skyrocket with increased absenteeism. The more employees use their employer-provided health insurance, the more premiums increase. The business may bear the brunt of the burden of increased costs. However, if employees pay for health coverage costs, higher premiums effectively decrease their compensation. Lower net compensation depresses morale and stimulates increased employee turnover. 
  • Can impact customer service: Your business may strive to provide excellent customer service, but service quality will suffer if your customer support team members are absent frequently. As response times lengthen and remaining reps feel overwhelmed, customer satisfaction can plummet and complaints may increase.
  • Can hurt sales: In a retail setting, fewer available sales team members can impact sales immediately. Customers won’t be assisted as quickly or have their questions answered promptly and may leave without purchasing. The impact can be even more significant if you’re missing inside sales staff or outside sales representatives dealing with higher-ticket items that take time to sell. Valuable leads can go ignored if no one is available to follow up. 

Combatting sick days and workplace absenteeism is crucial to ensuring your business operations run seamlessly. A healthier environment benefits your employees and your bottom line. 

How the average workplace affects employee health

According to the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, two aspects of the workplace directly affect employee health: physical environment and psychosocial environment.

Physical environment

The physical environment refers to a workplace’s physical furnishings, lighting, noise level, air quality and food. While regulations that mandate specific safety requirements exist, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, fire codes and local building codes, they primarily focus on known safety hazards. Improving employee health requires that businesses proactively provide a comfortable and healthy environment for workers, paying attention to the following:

  • Physical space: A cramped environment can cause physical discomfort, such as back pain and can increase the likelihood of catching a virus from a co-worker. However, placing workers too far apart can lead to feelings of isolation. According to British research, placing employees in a flexible office — divided by partitions into groups where teams can work together — can create high levels of health and job satisfaction. Private spaces and quiet rooms should be provided to allow confidential conversations and focus.
  • Furnishings: Uncomfortable chairs and work surfaces of the wrong height can result in back pain, neck pain, strains and bruises. Requiring employees to stand all day can also lead to back pain and other joint pain. Chairs should rotate, have a supportive backrest and be adjustable in height. Desks should have sufficient leg space and allow workers to flex their knees by 90 degrees.
  • Lighting: Lighting can affect productivity and mood and lead to physical health issues. Low lighting can cause eye strain, fatigue, headaches, stress and accidents. However, too-bright lighting can cause “glare” headaches and stress. Additionally, using only artificial lighting, particularly fluorescent lighting, can lead to depression and a lack of motivation. For best results, aim for adjustable lighting with overhead lighting as well as task lighting (desk lamps) that workers can control.
  • Noise level: Noisy workplaces can hurt productivity and concentration, increase stress and, in extreme cases, result in hearing loss. Design offices with sound-absorbing features like carpets, window treatments and partitions. You can also use breakout rooms for noisy conversations and meetings.
  • Air quality: Recirculated air can distribute illnesses and indoor contaminants, such as mold, which can aggravate or even cause respiratory distress, including asthma. Poor indoor air quality has been tied to headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Be sure to install an excellent ventilation system and avoid using harsh cleaning chemicals.
  • Temperature: If it’s too cold in the office, employees may have trouble concentrating or experience muscle soreness and cardiovascular and respiratory issues. However, temperatures that are too hot can induce dehydration, heat stroke and even death. While temperature preferences vary, aim for a comfortable range that accommodates as many employees as possible. OSHA recommends that employers keep temperatures between 68 and 76 degrees. 
  • Food: While some employers expect their workers to provide their own food, others provide on-site food options, including vending machines, break room snacks and cafeterias. Providing nutritious food improves employees’ overall health, helps them concentrate, boosts their immune systems and helps them avoid the sugar crashes that often ensue after eating junk food.
Did You Know?Did you know
Some employers provide fitness trackers to gamify health initiatives and encourage exercise. However, be mindful of privacy and access issues to ensure employees feel included and respected.

Psychosocial environment

Employees’ mental and emotional health is as crucial as their physical well-being. Pay attention to the following to help foster a happy and productive company culture in an optimal psychosocial environment: 

  • Stress: Stress can cascade into a host of mental health and physical problems, including cardiovascular disease, ulcers, pain, muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, depression, substance use and sleep problems. To mitigate your team’s stress, optimize assignment scheduling and treat employees with respect and empathy.
  • Lack of empowerment: When employees feel they have little or no control over their work, they become unmotivated, anxious and less engaged, eventually leading to absenteeism, lack of productivity, quitting or burnout. When possible, give employees autonomy over their assignments and let them make decisions that are appropriate to their experience, knowledge and position.
  • Lack of social support: Companies that treat their employees as cogs in a machine that can be replaced easily demoralize their teams. Instead, strive to treat employees like valued assets. Create a supportive culture that encourages employees to treat each other well, increasing everyone’s social support. Acknowledge and reward work well done to continue the good feelings.

How to create a healthier workplace

Not everyone will respond to your health improvement efforts. Some will resist them completely, determined to stick to their old ways. Don’t expect everyone to conform, but don’t give up on your employees and their health because you encounter some initial resistance. Over time, sound health improvement policies will become more accepted and prove successful.

While many people resist change, they’ll be more accepting once they recognize the benefits of improved wellness. Here are some tips for implementing health and wellness programs at work:

  • Get feedback on wellness programs: Before creating any wellness programs, find out what kinds of programs employees are interested in as these will be used the most. Focus on these programs and avoid spending money on initiatives that won’t make a difference.
  • Make wellness social: Have weekly meals and get-togethers where employees can socialize, such as “Vegetarian Tuesdays” or sushi happy hours. You can also sponsor a company softball or volleyball team or encourage employees to participate in fun runs and charity 5K events.
  • Reward employees for participating: Award points every time an employee swipes their key card at the company gym or if they’ve been tobacco-free for a certain amount of time. Give them a gift card to a health food store once they’ve accumulated enough points.
  • Ensure that managers are respectful: Train managers to treat employees with understanding and dignity as they improve their health.
  • Celebrate health: Have a party with healthy food when the company hits its goal of reducing sick days.
author image
Jennifer Dublino, Senior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
Jennifer Dublino is an experienced entrepreneur and astute marketing strategist. With over three decades of industry experience, she has been a guiding force for many businesses, offering invaluable expertise in market research, strategic planning, budget allocation, lead generation and beyond. Earlier in her career, Dublino established, nurtured and successfully sold her own marketing firm. Dublino, who has a bachelor's degree in business administration and an MBA in marketing and finance, also served as the chief operating officer of the Scent Marketing Institute, showcasing her ability to navigate diverse sectors within the marketing landscape. Over the years, Dublino has amassed a comprehensive understanding of business operations across a wide array of areas, ranging from credit card processing to compensation management. Her insights and expertise have earned her recognition, with her contributions quoted in reputable publications such as Reuters, Adweek, AdAge and others.
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