In these challenging economic times, companies need to find ways to get more for less. For HR managers, this means decreasing group healthcare costs while increasing employee productivity.

Many wellness programs are geared towards achieving such a goal through improving employee diet, exercise, and stress management. But wellness programs often fall short in one specific area that has a concrete impact on the bottom line – the discomfort that employees develop and experience at their desks from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Although this issue may sound like the responsibility of a Health & Safety team, the reality is that MSDs, such as back pain and repetitive strain, are one of the leading contributors to group health costs.

What’s harder to track – but equally devastating – is that MSDs cause the often-overlooked phenomenon of presenteeism: employees afflicted with pain who arrive at work, but are anything but productive.

By adding a simple and achievable discomfort prevention initiative to your overall wellness program, you can significantly reduce overall healthcare costs while boosting worker productivity across the organization.

The Impact of MSDs on Group Healthcare Costs

worker productivityIf you aren’t feeling back or other MSD-related pain, chances are the person in the next cubicle is. According to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 52.7% of the 28,902 people surveyed had experienced MSD pain over the course of the previous two weeks.1

Research by Remedy Interactive, a health and safety software company, reinforces these results; however, they measure “discomfort” – the point at which intervention can prevent MSDs. 41.9% of Remedy Interactive’s 500,000 person user base, which is 17 times larger than JAMA’s sample, experienced constant or frequent work-related discomfort2 before working with Remedy Interactive software.

Coupled with the intangible pain comes tangible (and expensive) healthcare costs. Research published in The Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States indicates that, according to a trajectory of rising healthcare costs, companies will be spending almost $720 billion on MSDs in 2012.3

Think of Maria Wilson, an executive who spends countless hours toting her laptop to various meetings, working from coffee shops and airplanes, and then working into the late night hours from her home office. Because she consistently sits in an uncomfortable position, she develops back pain. Maria uses her group health plan to pay for a doctor’s visit, a pain killer prescription, then both physical therapy and chiropractic treatments – all without filing a workers’ compensation claim. The Health & Safety team might never know about Maria’s pain, and her costs might not be included in their calculation of work-related injury costs. Instead those costs come down to the bottom line for which you are held accountable.

It’s likely that others in her company have – or will – follow the same route. According to the National Pharmaceutical Council4, back/neck pain is the second highest driver of medical and pharmacy bills (next to cancer).

The Case for MSD Prevention

By using a wellness-based approach of assessing and preventing behavior that often leads to MSDs in employees, companies can cut their employee discomfort in half5. This drastic reduction in employee discomfort leads to increased employee engagement, and can result in up to 20% fewer days of missed work6 and the potential for up to 27% reduced absenteeism.7

Consider the case of a technology company that recently struggled with group health costs. Steps were taken to help employees that reported discomfort – but this system relied on the employees to take the initiative to report their discomfort before they received assistance. At that point, many of them had already sought treatment through their private medical insurance plan.

To resolve this situation, the company implemented an initiative that used software to provide proactive communications and a personal discomfort assessment. Now employees can automatically report discomfort and complete a self-assessment, and receive automated personalized feedback with tips for preventing or improving their work-related discomfort.

The majority of the employees were able to resolve their own discomfort. For those employees unable to improve their own situation, the program provided management with the data necessary to intervene efficiently and effectively. Specifically, 53% of the employee population that had been experiencing constant or frequent discomfort shifted their rate to rarely or never experiencing discomfort. The company realized a 64% reduction in lost workdays.8

Conclusion

Companies can no longer afford the high costs of MSD pain, both in dollars and inefficiencies. Considering the current financial landscape – where costs need to be contained yet productivity needs to increase – weaving discomfort prevention into wellness isn’t only smart, it’s imperative.

  • 1. “Lost Productive Time and Cost Due to Common Pain Conditions in the US Workforce,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, November 2003.
  • 2. OES data collected by Remedy Interactive from 2005-2009.
  • 3. The Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States -Copyright 2008.
  • 4. “Cold Case Files,” IntraSpectives, Spring, 2008.
  • 5. OES data collected by Remedy Interactive for a technology company, 2006-2009.
  • 6. “Driving Business ResultsThrough Continuous Engagement”, WatsonWyatt’sWorkUSA Report, 2008/2009.
  • 7. “Employee Engagement: What’s Your Engagement Ratio?”, Gallup, Inc., 2008.
  • 8. Remedy Interactive, Ibid.

Image credit: Bill Abbott via flickr

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Karen English

Karen English

Karen Trumbull English, CPCU, ARM, ACI, AU is a Partner with Spring Consulting Group, LLC, formerly Watson Wyatt Insurance & Financial Services, Inc. She has twenty years of experience that spans across both health & welfare and property & casualty arenas, and routinely works with her clients on program strategy, product development, process improvement and market research initiatives. She leads the firms’ health and productivity approach and is actively involved in voluntary and other emerging benefits. Prior to joining Spring Consulting Group and Watson Wyatt, Karen led the regional risk & insurance practice for a small consulting firm, held the role of Assistant Risk Manager for one of the nation’s largest banks (U.S. Bank), and was a casualty broker for two of the world’s largest insurance brokers (Marsh and Aon). Karen has her BBA in Risk Management and Human Resources from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her MBA in Finance from University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management. She has also earned the designations of CPCU, ARM, ACI, and AU and is a licensed insurance broker.