Employee health is a priority for employees and businesses alike, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to CDC data, business productivity losses caused by personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers $225.8 billion each year, 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, thus keeping operations moving steadily and providing an environment that fosters a healthy, engaged team.
Supporting employees’ mental health is just as crucial as fostering their physical health. Consider hiring a health professional to educate your team on improving self-care, reducing stress and preventing burnout.
How to reduce sick days
Absenteeism costs a business in several ways:
- Loss of productivity
- Decrease in workplace morale
- Health insurance costs
- Loss of customer service because of an employee shortage
These elements drag on your bottom line and ultimately take a toll. However, improving your workplace to make it a healthier environment for your employees will benefit everyone while saving you money.
Here are 10 ways to reduce 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 options 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.
To benefit your employees’ long-term health, encourage habitual healthy eating. For example, provide unique fringe benefits, such as 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. Common 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 put together, leaders communicate the details to employees and may offer participation incentives.
Although wellness programs have costs, they also reduce absenteeism, boost employee morale and make an excellent additional employee benefit that’s worth touting during the hiring process.
When you’re designing a wellness program, be sure to adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, HIPAA laws and other regulations.
6. Create an employee assistance program.
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer employees medical help and counseling when they are dealing with a stressful personal or family event, including a 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 proactively address problems that could result in 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.
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 study by Harvard Business School found that when companies let employees control their work schedules, their mental health improved. Flexible benefits include permitting varied start and stop times (like coming in early and leaving early), allowing employees to trade shifts, creating a remote work plan and enabling hybrid work.
Flexibility can improve employees’ physical and mental health and even reduce 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 looser permissions. In addition to improving employee health, this flexibility improves 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 employees and the company. When Gap made this change, it experienced a 7% increase in sales and a 5% improvement in productivity.
How the average workplace affects employee health
Research from Qualtrics found that in 2021, 48% of employees were completely satisfied with their jobs and 39% were somewhat satisfied, meaning 87% were at least partly content at work. This is likely because the tight post-COVID labor market led companies to offer higher wages and improve employee benefits to attract talent.
This work satisfaction level may come down over time as higher salaries are normalized or return to pre-pandemic levels. (Indeed, the level decreased from a high of 56% completely satisfied and 33% somewhat satisfied employees in 2020).
Dissatisfaction can lead to depression, and an employee’s negative emotional state can result in a weakened immune system. Dissatisfied employees will look for a job with higher pay, resulting in high turnover and recruiting costs. It is less expensive to make an existing employee happy than to replace that employee.
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 just because you encounter some initial resistance. Over time, sound health-improvement policies will become more accepted and prove successful.
While many people resist change, once they recognize the benefits of improved wellness, they’ll be more accepting. Here are some tips for implementing health and wellness programs at work:
- Get feedback on wellness programs. Get employee feedback before creating any wellness programs. Find out what kinds of programs employees are interested in; these will be used the most and will help you avoid spending money on programs that don’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 on treating employees with understanding and dignity as they improve their health.
- Celebrate health. Have a party with healthy food whenever the company hits its goal of reducing sick days.
Sam Malik contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.