When employees are present and unproductive

I RAN INTO two of my favorite people in the contracting industry during the recent PHCC convention and ISH North America trade show in Boston. I discovered that both suffered from the same condition carpal tunnel syndrome. One of them had just undergone surgery on his wrist and had to shake hands with his left one, which wasn't in a splint. The other told me that even the simple act of writing a note

I RAN INTO two of my favorite people in the contracting industry during the recent PHCC convention and ISH North America trade show in Boston. I discovered that both suffered from the same condition carpal tunnel syndrome.

One of them had just undergone surgery on his wrist and had to shake hands with his left one, which wasn't in a splint. The other told me that even the simple act of writing a note caused her pain.

As many of you unfortunately know firsthand, carpal tunnel is a nerve condition that develops in the wrists of people who perform certain repetitive tasks, frequently related to their jobs.

Running into the two contractors in Boston reminded me that almost four years have passed since OSHA's ergonomics rule was "rushed" into existence in the closing days of the Clinton administration, only to be rescinded in the first days of the new Bush presidency. Actually, work on the ergonomic standard had started a decade earlier when the first President Bush was in office.

Union officials were outraged when the new rule was removed. The AFLCIO claimed that 1.8 million ergonomicsrelated injuries occur every year in the workplace. These are injuries to muscles, bones, tendons and joints that frequently are caused by performing repetitive tasks and sometimes are difficult to diagnose.

Many contracting companies would have been exempt under the rule, although service contractors and those with prefabrication shops likely would have had to deal with it. The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors and other business groups opposed the rule as being too expensive and cumbersome for their members to administer.

At the time, we predicted that the ergonomics rule was unlikely to resurface anytime soon. And, while ergonomics in the workplace is still being discussed four years later, a new issue in worker productivity has appeared. Its called "presenteeism."


Everyone would have been better off if these workers had just stayed home.


As opposed to absenteeism, presenteeism occurs when employees show up for work and can't function fully because-of an illness or other medical condition. Writing in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, senior editor Paul Hemp contends that presenteeism costs U.S. companies billions of dollars annually, far more than absenteeism does.

This comes as a bit of a shock to someone like me who has taken only a handful of sick days in almost 30 years of full-time employment. While maybe not in Cal Ripken Jr.'s league, Ive always gone along with Woody Allen's belief that 80% to 90% of success is just showing up.

Now, however, I have to wonder. Hemp cites two studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association that found employees who showed up for work suffering from pain or depression were three times less productive than people with the same conditions who were absent. Everyone would have been better off if these workers had just stayed home that day.

Contractors who have deadlines to meet may just throw up their hands at this admittedly new field of study in worker productivity. Yet, some of the solutions to deal with presenteeism arent all that different from elements in the voluntary ergonomics programs you may already have in place.

First, the bad news is that cutting back on expensive medical benefits can prove to be a false economy. The money saved by reducing health insurance could be offset by the indirect costs of lost productivity.

Still, employers and managers becoming aware of the general issue of presenteeism, as they did with ergonomics, and getting to know the particular health concerns of their employees are important steps. Programs to educate employees on how to manage their medical conditions through better diet, stress reduction or other means also appear to be helpful.

Unlike ergonomics, no government mandate is looming over your head to address this productivity issue. As we noted four years ago, though, your best interests are served by creating a work environment that will keep your employees healthy and productive.