Back problems cost $621m in lost productivity

Work two cropped

Wei Zhang

Lead author Wei Zhang

Back problems, mood disorders and migraines cost millions in productivity loss, recent research has suggested.

Led by School of Population and Public Health and Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences and the Partnership for Work, Health and Safety postdoctoral fellow Wei Zhang, the research looked at 28,678 eligible respondents to the 2010 Canadian Community Health Survey, the latest data available at the time of the study. These respondents were aged between 15 and 75 years of age and had reported employment in the last three months, with 16 chronic conditions considered in the survey.

Published this month in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, the research found 1.35 days missed on average due to health problems over a three month period. The three chronic conditions most associated with missed workdays were mood disorders, heart disease and bowel disorders, at 1.17, 0.81 and 0.80 more missed work days respectively, than workers without this condition.

The research, co-authored by School of Population and Public Health assistant professor Chris McLeod and professor Mieke Koehoorn, found that the conditions associated with the largest productivity losses

Dr. Chris McLeod

SPPH assistant professor
Chris McLeod

were back problems, costing $621 million in three months, mood disorders, costing $299 million, and
migraines, costing $245 million. These conditions had a strong association with absenteeism and a high prevalence in the population.

These losses were calculated by multiplying the incremental number of workdays missed by the number of employees with the specific condition, the average hours per work day (eight hours) and an average hourly wage of $24.33. The final losses also included the employee benefits paid by employers and the impact of employee absenteeism on their colleagues’ productivity.

The research listed several limitations, including chronic conditions being based on self-reporting and wage information not being asked as part of the CCHS.

The authors argue the study could help employers prioritize chronic conditions when implementing programs to manage these conditions and employee absenteeism.

Mieke Koehoorn

SPPH professor Mieke Koehoorn

Targeted programs or interventions addressing the conditions most associated with high absenteeism and lost productivity could be cost-effective for employers, Dr. Zhang said.

“If the employer is willing to address the problem but has a limited budget, and they
want to have a target, they can target those areas.”

Lead author Wei Zhang

Dr. McLeod said the study supported a continued focus on understanding the burden of chronic diseases and interventions on an employer level, and awareness on a societal level. “It helps support the idea that chronic conditions, and particularly some chronic conditions…relate or create significant productivity losses. That’s something not only employers need to think about but it’s also a broader societal issue.”

Dr. Koehoorn said for the most part, employers, human resources (HR) departments and other supportive groups had done a fairly good job of accommodating individuals with acute conditions such as cancer. However the conditions the research had identified, which people lived with chronically, were not as accommodated for, and this research drew attention to these chronic episodic conditions. There was a need to be innovative when it came to working out how to accommodate these chronic conditions, she said, in such areas as the benefits available, job sharing, and job accommodation.

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