Column: A healthy bottom line starts with taking health seriously

Belnavis Clarence

Clarence Belnavis
Clarence Belnavis
Erin Sweeney
Erin Sweeney
When an employee is out sick, employers are acutely aware that there is a cost to them for lost productivity. An even more troubling situation for employers is when individuals report to work sick. This is known as presenteeism, and sick employees are obviously far less productive than their healthy peers. Depending on their sickness and work environment, these individuals could infect their coworkers. Thus, one employee can end up impacting an entire workgroup or department.

There are many reasons why an employee may decide to report to work sick. Some may have time-sensitive projects that need to be finished or feel that their presence at work is crucial to the employer. Others may be concerned that their job could be in jeopardy if they are absent. And still others may not want to take an unpaid sick day. If an employee has been planning a vacation, he or she may also not want to take a paid vacation day to cover for the time away from work.

Like most states, Washington does not mandate paid sick leave. However, there are paid sick leave bills currently pending in the state legislature – HB 2508 and SB 6229. These bills have perhaps been inspired by the unique ordinance passed in Seattle in the fall of 2011 requiring (depending on the number of employees) businesses to provide limited paid sick leave. Time will tell how the pending legislation turns out.

Frankly, employers in Washington have been hard hit by the recession and are looking for ways to control health related costs. Whether through absenteeism or presenteeism, a sick employee is likely to utilize an employee health plan and drive up costs for employers. 

Many employers have turned to employee health and wellness programs in an effort to keep workers in overall good health – the theory being that a healthy workforce will result in less absenteeism, presenteeism and use of costly employee health plans.

Such health and wellness programs can include seemingly small efforts ranging from creating awareness regarding the health hazards of smoking, to providing onsite gyms and/or health screenings for employees. A typical program could involve a competition amongst employees to see who can walk the farthest in a month with some sort of an incentive for the winner. The ultimate goal of these programs is that employees will make small changes in their daily habits, resulting in long-term benefits.

The programs are not without their own costs. A good program should have clearly defined goals (ex. decrease the number of smokers to a certain percentage, lower sickness related absenteeism to a defined level, etc.), have defined activities, be properly marketed to employees, have a process for tracking the success (or lack thereof) of the program and result in an assessment of the program’s effectiveness. Without these steps, the benefits of these programs will not be clear. All of this will take resources to implement, but the hope is that it will lower costs for employers while giving employees the encouragement and impetus to live healthier lives.

In the end, motivating employees to take their health seriously helps the bottom line.


Clarence Belnavis and Erin Sweeney are members of the law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP, each specializing in labor and employment law. Their office can be reached at 503.242.4262.