How Employee Health Impacts Your Patients (and Your Practice)

As the New York Times recently reported, nursing ranks among the worst careers for work-related injuries and back pain. Additionally, research shows that 18 percent of nurses suffer from depression – a prevalence twice as high as the average for all U.S. citizens.

Making matters worse, those occupational hazards and issues don’t just affect the nurses themselves – they place healthcare consumers at risk. Research shows that medication mistakes and patient injuries are 20 percent more likely to occur when a nurse is in pain or depressed.

And nurses aren’t the only employees in your practice whose wellbeing impacts the quality of patient care. The actions of doctors, nonphysician providers, medical assistants, and even administrative staffers all affect healthcare outcomes, making it hugely important for your workforce to be a healthy one.

Embrace Appropriate Absences
Workers in healthcare and other sectors often show up to work whether or not they’re physically up to it, for reasons that vary from person to person.

Some workplaces are understaffed, meaning employees don’t want to call off and place an extra burden on their coworkers. Others feel insecure about the security of their positions should they call off, are under financial pressures that make it unwise to miss work or have a too-strong sense of dedication to their jobs.

“The culture of medicine is so completely focused on self-sacrifice that when doctors come into work so sick they need intravenous fluids, it’s considered a badge of courage,” Dr. Eric Widera, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times.

Economists call this issue “presenteeism” (as in the opposite of “absenteeism”) and find it to have a strong impact on employee productivity in myriad industries, costing companies over $150 billion per year. In healthcare, though, presenteeism poses additional threats to patients through decreased quality of care and increased risk of the transmission of disease.

Don’t allow those to be risks at your office. Establish a policy whereby employees stay home when they’re sick and make sure your staff is well aware of it – post flyers during flu season and direct those folks that you know are under the weather to go home and get back in bed.

To further protect your patients, extend the policy to injuries and mental health issues, as well. Make sure your employees have adequate short- and long-term disability coverage and high-visibility access to depression-help resources.

Workplace Wellness Means Employer Savings
But your employee-health approach shouldn’t end at making sure staffers recover properly from their afflictions – it should work to keep them from becoming afflicted in the first place.

Workplace wellness programs have grown in popularity in recent years; a 2011 survey found that 67 percent of companies with three or more employees that offered health benefits also offered at least one wellness program, such as a discounted gym membership, smoking cessation help, weight loss program, healthy living class, personal health coach or other resources.

It’s a welcome trend for employers, as research has shown that wellness programs lower employers’ medical costs. A study from Harvard University found that, on average, a business’ healthcare spending falls $3.27 for every dollar it spends on wellness programs. Other analysis found that health promotion programs reduced around 25 percent of overall costs for sick leave, health plans, and workers compensation and disability coverage.

Another plus is that employee wellness programs, especially ones that offer financial rewards for participation, often prove so popular with employees that they result in marked improvements to staff retention rates. That said, experts advise against expecting a baseline program – a fitness club membership and weight loss contest – to breed you a staff of loyal, healthy employees. A “one-size-fits-all” wellness program may be less than effective.

“Every employee is different,” writes Brad Cooper, CEO of US Corporate Wellness, Inc. “As a result, generic, impersonal (group-based) approaches to employee wellness simply don’t work over the long haul. Only personalized approaches provide the desired long term effect (and ROI).

Customizable health programs that can be adapted to the needs of your varied employees are most likely to breed the best results. Cooper advises keeping the needs of staffers on “the opposite ends of the [health] spectrum” in mind when developing a program or partnering with a wellness vendor.

Not ready for a full-on partnership of that nature? Small steps help too. Don’t just encourage employees to get flu shots – pick a day to have them available on site. If pharmaceutical reps often order lunches for your office, tell them to choose only healthy meal options. Sponsor a local 5K and field a team of staffers, or just organize an after-work Wednesday Walking Club.

Take an active role in fostering and encouraging a healthy workforce at your practice. Not only will it save you money on medical costs, but it will also help your patients (and employees) achieve better healthcare outcomes.

How do you encourage wellness among your staff?

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