4th COVID wave could be marked by absenteeism

Mental and behavioral health conditions could push worker absenteeism to new heights, but presenteeism may prove even worse.
Feature Absenteeism At Work Post Covid 19 Panel

The U.S. is in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. With vaccines slowly reaching Americans, this wave could be the last.

However, a fourth wave waits in the wings — a mental and behavioral health crisis.

Health care providers around the world have seen cases of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems spike since March 2020. Use of alcohol and other drugs has also been on the rise. Opioid overdoses are increasing, and despite an early surge of people excited about their new pandemic home workout routines, more Americans are overweight and obese.

Government can help when this wave crashes, but it will largely crash on employers. Employers end up paying for the costs of untreated mental and behavioral health issues through absenteeism and lower productivity. While these costs are evident now, they will be even more obvious — and perhaps even overwhelming — when a vaccine enables employees to return to work.

The toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on workers’ mental, behavioral, and physical health isn’t nearly so evident when many professionals are still working remotely some or all of the time 10 months after the pandemic began. In fact, recent research indicates productivity remains high even with the shift to remote work. According to Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm, 94% of 800 employers surveyed reported that productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, even with their employees working remotely.

But Mercer is also no stranger to the ramifications that come when workers stop working.

The combined total costs for incidental and extended absenteeism — the kinds of absenteeism employers try to minimize — add up to 9.2% of payroll, notes an earlier Mercer study. This figure is more than half the cost of health care, measured at 13.6% of payroll in Mercer’s 2009 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans. Further, the total costs of all major absence categories — including direct and indirect costs —average 35% of base payroll. These costs range from 29% for exempt employees, 36% for nonexempt salaried, 39% for nonunion hourly, and 38% for union hourly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost employers $225.8 billion annually, or $1,685 per employee, in the United States. Unplanned absenteeism, such as calling in sick, results in double the productivity loss than a planned absence, such as PTO or vacation. During the pandemic, factors like becoming infected with COVID-19 or being forced to quarantine, have resulted in increased unplanned absenteeism, contributing to a 36.6% loss of productivity due to unplanned absenteeism compared to 22.6% for planned absenteeism.

In particular, because the outward signs of depression and substance abuse may not always be obvious, employers should take steps to help workers manage their mental health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic if they haven’t already.

Terri L. Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, notes most employers offer resources to address mental and behavioral health, but because so many professionals are still working from home, these resources may be out of sight and out of mind.

Rhodes provides the following suggestions in an article for Risk & Insurance magazine for how employers can help employees address mental and behavioral health issues while they’re still working remotely and set them up for success when they return to the office in person.

  1. Bold messaging

“One of the more difficult aspects of mental and behavioral health issues is that many, if not most, try to self-manage,” says Rhodes.

“Stress, anxiety, and ‘being down’ are often viewed as normal occurrences in life. While these conditions can and do impact personal relationships and work performance, it often takes some kind of crisis to lead an employee to seek help.

“Now more than ever, employers should use bold communication to let employees know they’re not on their own. There are resources available to help.

“Make sure company intranets include a centralized repository for benefits and resources, especially for the remote workers. Send reminders via email and post reminders on the company login pages. Engage vendors to support your workforce.”

  1. Senior leadership

“Supportive and informative communication from senior leaders is important in the best of times,” says Rhodes. “In uncertain times like these, it can be especially important in helping employees deal with the stress and anxiety that accompanies new routines and demands.

“One of the more important variables in employee use of company mental and behavioral health resources is communication from the top. Senior leaders should acknowledge the times we are in and inform employees about resources available.

“This will set the stage for the kind of bold messaging mentioned above. Senior leaders should be performing routine check-ins with direct reports and then have managers and supervisors do the same. Take time to ask about personal life, families, and what they are doing during their ‘off times.’”

  1. Webinars

“Employers can utilize vendors that offer webinars and Q&A sessions on mental health and other issues impacting the workforce,” notes Rhodes.

“These webinars include topics such as effective communication and how to cope with stress or anxiety in a positive way, while avoiding increased alcohol and drug use and unhealthy food consumption.

“Webinars designed for managers include training on best practices, including keeping consistent one-on-one meetings and hosting fun, virtual meetups that allow for human interaction with co-workers.

“Employers can also offer benefits like virtual yoga and meditation classes. These are low-cost ways to substitute for on-site wellness benefits increasingly offered by employers.”

  1. Apps

“There are several low-cost apps on the market that offer stress and well-being assistance,” says Rhodes. “Many have a mindfulness component to them. Employees are more apt to use a phone app than call into a customer service number to access information through the EAP. Many are available for children as well.”

  1. Better use of EAPs

“Nearly all employers with the resources to ensure employees can work from home have an employee assistance program (EAP), notes Rhodes. “Yet use of EAPs is very low. According to a survey by Guardian Life Insurance, in 87% of workplaces, 20% or less of employees have used EAP services.

“This is largely because employers do not communicate about them as effectively as they should. When employers do effectively communicate and promote EAPs, the results are impressive.

“Although detailed EAP performance statistics are limited, documented studies suggest employer-sponsored EAPs can reduce company disability, medical, pharmacy, and worker’s compensation costs.

“The current situation lends itself to EAP use. Since so many EAP programs are already conducted online or via telephonic interviews, remote employees can more easily integrate them into the rest of their lives. Calling into the EAP, while working from home, might feel more confidential than calling from the workplace. Employers need to continue to talk about the EAPs, normalize their use within the context of today’s crisis, and assure their use is confidential and encouraged.”

A note about presenteeism

While absenteeism and presenteeism are often grouped together, they are two very different issues.

According to SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors, whereas absenteeism is marked by unplanned employee absences, presenteeism, on the other hand, is when employees are present at work, but they’re not doing their job or being productive. This occurs when employees decide to work even when they are sick or don’t feel 100%. Presenteeism is hard to quantify because, while employees show up for work, and might even outwardly look fine, underlying health issues might be driving down their motivation and productivity.

A study published by Oxford University Press titled Presenteeism during the COVID-19 pandemic: Risks and solutions notes, “Although reducing the cost of sickness absence may seem a priority, there is growing evidence that sickness presenteeism (continuing to work when unwell) is far more costly than absenteeism.

“To some extent, sickness presenteeism can be beneficial, as work provides structure, builds self-esteem, and offers opportunities for social engagement and support,” the study by Gail Kinman and Christine Grant continues. “Presenteeism can also be therapeutic, as a managed approach can help employees return to work gradually following sickness absence. Nonetheless, there is extensive evidence that working while unwell can delay rather than expedite recovery and increase the risk of future health problems and sickness absence. Studies have also found that presenteeism can impair productivity and result in errors, accidents, and injuries to the employee, their co-workers, and the public. Moreover, the findings that people frequently continue to work while experiencing infectious diseases raise particularly serious concerns for public health during the current pandemic.

“Organizations and employees should work together to establish cultural norms that encourage people to take enough time off sick to recover,” the study concludes. “It is possible that sickness presenteeism may become less acceptable, both socially and by organizations, due to fears of COVID-19 transmission and the need to take preemptive action for the collective good. Investing in training for supervisors and managers to help them support their staff and identify and address the early signs of stress will also be useful. Managers may also benefit from training in coaching techniques to facilitate critical well-being conversations with staff, whether working from home or externally.”

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