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Unhappy Employees Cost More (and how to reduce that cost)

Employment Exhibition
What does it take to reduce on-the-job depression and create an overall happier work environment? (Photo credit: Modern_Language_Center)

A recent study of health factors and their associated costs at seven companies, published in the journal Health Affairs, found that “depression is the most costly among 10 common risk factors linked to higher health spending on employees.”

The analysis, found that these factors — which also included obesity, high blood sugar and high blood pressure — were associated with nearly a quarter of the money spent on the health care of more than 92,000 workers.

First the employees were assessed for health risks, then researchers tracked their medical spending from 2005 through 2009.

The average medical spending for each employee was $3,961 a year. In total, $82 million, or 22 percent, of the $366 million annually spent on health care for the workers was attributed to the 10 risk factors, the study found.

The relationship between higher spending and depression was the strongest, with 48 percent more spending for workers with a propensity for that widespread problem.

via VPR News: Depression And Health Spending Go Together.

Now, to be fair, this is a fairly small study of just seven companies, and the article didn’t say how many employees worked at these companies. However, this is definitely a trend that has been spotted at least anecdotally by many HR managers, so it’s nice to see that there is some “official” analysis being done on the issue.

So what can employers do about this? My fear is that employers would discriminate, unintentionally or intentionally, against people who suffer from depression. But these days many people will be diagnosed with depression due to a temporary life situation such as a death in the family, or their jobs, so being fired for temporary sadness is probably not a good idea for companies.

Instead, my hope is that companies would invest more on making people’s job satisfaction higher. As of two years ago, Americans reported the lowest job satisfaction ever recorded. That means employers can be doing A LOT more to improve their employees’ lives at work. And a lot of that has to do with feeling supported by their managers, and feel like they are heard and respected and overall a part of the team. A lot of that comes from having fun at work.

This philosophy has been spouted in several different books and magazines, and has been shown to work well in classrooms as well, referred to as the “Responsive Classroom” approach.

The Responsive Classroom approach centers on several ostensibly mundane classroom practices. Each morning students form a circle, greet one another, share bits of news, engage in a brief, fun activity and review the day’s agenda. The idea is to build trust, ensure a little fun (which adolescents crave) and confront small problems before they become big. Students might welcome one another with salutations from a foreign language. An activity might involve tossing several balls around a circle in rapid succession. Students share weekend plans or explore topics like bullying before lessons begin. (New York Times)

This approach could very easily be applied to a business setting, in fact it sounds like a team kick-off meeting one might see in a corporate environment. Taking time to connect with other coworkers and laugh a little before diving in to the day’s work has been shown to work wonders for productivity and boost morality in both school and work settings.

There is definitely a  drive and expectation in many industries to work longer, faster, harder hours, and be available and working at all hours. But that drive is unsustainable, demonstrated by the low job satisfaction and high burnout rates in many industries, from high-tech to physicians. Taking time to play a little bit at work, or just connect with coworkers, is being shown as an effective way to reduce depression related to work and job burnout, increase productivity, and create a more cohesive company with more loyalty overall to the company’s mission.

So long story short: remember to bring the koosh ball to your next meeting.