BusinessHuman Capital

How primary care can reduce absenteeism in the workplace


In January 2018, nearly 4.2 million Americans missed work because they or their family members experienced an illness, injury or medical problem or had health-related appointments, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Each year, especially during the cold and flu season, there is a dramatic spike in absenteeism for full- and part-time employees from December through March.

In addition to illnesses, employees can become absent from work due to acute injuries which can occur on or off the job as well as suffer from chronic injuries (i.e. back and neck problems) which are a common cause of absenteeism.

According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, who surveyed nearly 97,000 people, 77 percent of workers who have chronic health conditions like asthma, cancer, depression, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity contribute a net loss of $84 billion per year to the U.S. economy.

Absenteeism is a difficult problem both fiscally and from a human resources stand-point. It is sometimes difficult to discern whether an absence is justified. Employers, especially small business owners, are challenged to effectively monitor, control and reduce absenteeism. The expense of human resource management related to absenteeism is cost distinct from the expense of lost productivity.

It is in the financial best interest of small business owners and Fortune 500 companies alike to develop and maintain a healthy workforce. Discouraging presentism – working in spite of being sick and potentially infectious – by establishing a non-punitive, paid sick leave policy is one step toward reducing illness and injury-related business cost.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that paid sick leave could have an especially significant impact in the food service industry where it is estimated that sick food handlers are responsible for 53 percent of the spread of a Norovirus infection – a potentially serious illness which is highly contagious and causes vomiting and diarrhea.

One sick food handler could theoretically infect dozens or even hundreds of people – employees of the establishment and their customers who are the employees of other businesses. Outbreaks of the Norovirus frequently results in scores of absences which could have been avoided if that one employee had stayed home. A paid sick-leave policy would reduce cost-related absenteeism due to that illness.

Prevention of illness and injury is another strategy that reduces lost productivity and improves the bottom line. Putting policies in place which focus on employee health concerns, including:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Work-life balance
  • Environmental health
  • Economic health

Healthy, happy employees show up for work and produce better work more efficiently. Although employee wellness strategies require an investment, they do provide a net gain in a company’s bottom line. As the health of the employees improves, job turnover decreases, productivity improves, and companies have more potential to grow.

If you are a local business owner or human resources specialist, encourage your employees to utilize the resources of their family physicians to get regular check-ups; to immunize themselves and their children to prevent illness and absences from work; to exercise 150 minutes a week (i.e. 30 minutes for five days); to engage in smoking cessation and weight loss efforts; to make healthier food and beverage choices; to avoid substance abuse; and to treat and prevent injury. If your employees do not have a physician, provide your workers with a directory of local physicians who accept your company’s insurance.

Large employers may opt to contract with local healthcare systems to provide regularly scheduled health care on site thereby improving utilization of preventive services and reducing productivity disruption. In other words, a family physician on-site one day a week may improve the health and well-being of your employees and your company.

Employers themselves can have a direct impact on their employees’ well-being by providing exercise rooms, offering healthy choices in vending machines, eliminating sweetened drinks from vending machines, posting information about the importance of immunization, conducting “Free Fruit Fridays,” and encouraging healthy potlucks at the office. Studies have also shown that shortening the workday increases productivity and job satisfaction thereby improving wellness and reducing absenteeism.

The bottom line – family physicians are excellent resources available to you, your employees and their families. They improve the health of individuals and communities and can help you reduce the billion-dollar burden of the cost of illness.


  • Feeling Sick This Cold and Flu Season? Stay Home, Say Coworkers: Robert Half
  • The Causes and Costs Of Absenteeism In The Workplace: Forbes
  • TED: The Economics Daily: 4.2 million workers have illness-related work absences in January 2018; U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics
  • In U.S., Poor Health Tied to Big Losses for All Job Types: Gallup

Kathleen Meehan-de la Cruz, MD, is a physician specializing in family medicine at Mercy Health – Lorain Family Medicine. Meehan-de la Cruz is an active member of the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians, the largest association for family physicians in the state, and serves as the vice speaker on the OAFP Board of Directors.