Workers aren't taking good care of themselves and it's costing employers big bucks


Victoria Wells: Employees are skipping work more often or putting in less effort because of health issues

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Workers in Canada seem to be falling down on the job when it comes to taking good care of themselves, and that’s causing their employers to bleed cash.

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Workplace productivity is taking a major hit as employees skip work more often or put in less effort because of health issues, said Manulife Financial Corp.’s latest wellness report, which measures worker well-being at Canadian companies. In 2022, individuals missed an average of 48 days of work, either because of presenteeism — showing up but not performing to their full capacity — or not reporting in at all. That’s seven more lost days than in 2021. As a result, companies are losing money, with Manulife estimating the toll to be around $645 million per year for the businesses that participated in its survey.

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The trend is troubling for employers, many of whom likely expected productivity to turn around once the pandemic eased. “While some productivity loss due to absences and presenteeism is expected, it is concerning to see these numbers have increased year over year, for the past three years,” Ashesh Desai, head of Group Benefits at Manulife Canada, said in a news release.

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It could also mean bosses will need to invest more money to support workers’ health if they are keen to reverse those big productivity losses. Indeed, the survey’s results indicate many workers just aren’t paying as much attention to their health as they should. For example, their nutrition could be better, given that 71 per cent admit to not eating five fruits and vegetables a day. A lack of sleep is also a problem, with 27 per cent saying they get less than the seven hours recommended by health professionals, and they blame work stress for the shortfall. Employees also aren’t exercising enough, with only 40 per cent fitting in a suggested 150 minutes of physical activity each week.

All that neglect is hurting employees, Manulife said, with failure to get enough sleep and exercise proven to erode mental health. Plus, workers may be setting themselves up for a vicious circle of neglect, abandoning physical health needs because their mental health is suffering, and vice versa.

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Manulife points to lingering after effects of the pandemic as part of the reason why people are struggling to care for themselves. Younger people are especially impacted, with 18-to-24-year-olds reporting worse metrics for mental and physical health than older workers. “The pandemic put new pressures and strains on Canadians,” the report said. “As a result, we’re seeing potential effects on their health continue three years later.”

Loneliness among employees also remains high, the survey shows, improving over last year, but worsening slightly from 2020. Isolation is known to impact both mental and physical health. The new normal of working from home, which keeps people from regular in-person interactions with colleagues, might be exacerbating the problem, experts say.

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Financial stress could also be a significant factor. The past three years have put people’s finances on a roller-coaster, with initial lockdowns resulting in job losses and paycheque cuts for some, and flush savings accounts for others amid fewer opportunities to spend and an influx in income from government benefit cheques. But after the economy reopened and people started spending again, inflation started rising, peaking at 8.1 per cent in June 2022. Everything became a lot more expensive, and the strain hit people’s wallets and stress levels alike. According to Manulife, 21 per cent of workers say they’re struggling with intense financial stress, up from 16 per cent in 2021 and 14 per cent in 2020. At the same time, 63 per cent of employees worry about money, while 30 per cent spend time thinking about it when they should be working. Hello, productivity losses.

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Employees are worrying more about money in a high inflation environment.
Employees are worrying more about money in a high inflation environment. Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

There’s evidence all that financial stress is also taking a toll on mental wellness. Canadians’ mental health hasn’t been this down in the dumps since the start of the pandemic, said Telus Inc.’s latest monthly mental health index. In February, the measure declined the most since April 2020, and inflation and the higher costs of living are likely culprits, Telus said. “Economic changes, on top of existing challenges we’ve been facing over the past three years, have made nearly half of workers in Canada more sensitive to stress,” Paula Allen, global leader, Business & Client Insights at Telus Health, said in a press release.

Many employees are now looking to their employers to help them cope, and want their workplaces to offer assistance programs, automatic savings plans and even free financial advice. It’s something employers might want to pay attention to as they seek ways to keep their employees engaged. “Through this period of uncertainty, workers are looking to be supported in ways they may not have been in the past,” Juggy Sihota, Telus Health’s chief growth officer, said in a release. “It’s important for employers to be aware of this shift, and make adjustments that allow them to attract and retain talented workers.”

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Asking employers to help shore up the personal finances of employees may be a bit too much, but there’s proof that supporting workers’ health pays off for companies. Manulife said businesses that invest in such supports — and make employees aware of their existence — end up with employees who sleep better and have improved physical and mental health. That’s been shown to boost productivity by an extra nine days, the insurer said.

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Of course, a gain of nine days doesn’t do much to wipe out the whopping 48 days companies are apparently losing each year because of sick and tired employees. Still, it’s something. And perhaps it’s worth it to bosses anxious to stem balance-sheet bleeding any way they can.

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A version of this story was first published in the FP Work newsletter, a curated look at the changing world of work. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.


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