by Catey Hill
Offices have always had their share of health hazards — sniffling coworkers, stress-inducing bosses, or that Petri dish of a shared refrigerator. But just in time for spring flu season, new data shows workplaces are making us sicker than ever and hurting everyone’s bottom line.
In fact, if you’re reading this at work, there’s a good chance you’re mere feet away from someone who might be contagious. A growing number of employees say they are feeling unhealthy and stressed out. Just 28% of employees say their health is excellent, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute , down from 34% six years ago. And 68% of workers reported a high level of job-related stress in 2010 , compared to 65% in 2009 — which studies have shown can make you both physically and emotionally ill. And are ailing workers staying home? Less than ever. Nearly three out of four employees say they go to work when they’re ill. “The office environment can make you really sick,” says Chuck Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona.
Of course, there are lots of components of physical health – stress and communicable co-workers are only part of the equation. But experts say the wellness of the work environment has become more important since the recession, because employees are working longer hours and shouldering more work. Spending more hours at work can put you at “greater exposure” to workplace germs that spread colds, flu and more, says Gerba. It also adds to stress, bad backs, carpal tunnel syndrome and more. In fact, a study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that employees who increase their hours at work are 61% more likely to be injured on the job than those who don’t.
Meanwhile, the costs of staying healthy – or getting better – are rising. Workers paid 12% more for their employer-sponsored coverage in 2010 compared to a year earlier, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Co-payments for prescriptions and office visits jumped 10%. And at the same time, many companies are cutting back on health benefits that help workers deal with the stress and extra hours. In 2006, 20% of companies covered alternative treatments like massage, acupuncture and chiropractic services and half offered flexible spending accounts designed to offset the costs of health care premiums; in 2010, only 14% and 43%, respectively, did.
The good news, perhaps, is that millions of people go to work each day and don’t get sick at all. The most common workplace health risks can be mitigated with a little care and some good habits. Below are the three biggest – and most expensive – health hazards of the office, and how to avoid them.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to determine where exactly you caught a bug, but experts say office germs are often to blame. More than half of employees say they have gotten sick from an ailing coworker in the past year, a 2011 CareerBuilder.com survey found — and that’s just the tip of the office-germ iceberg. The typical workers’ desk – especially her phone, keyboard and mouse — has 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat, according to Gerba’s research. The office kitchen? It’s “like an unregulated restaurant,” says Gerba. Half of office coffee cups have fecal bacteria in them, and nearly one in five office fridges is cleaned out only once or twice per year, according to a study by the ADA and ConAgra Foods.
What it costs: For a relatively minor cold or flu, expect to pay about $100 or so per year for over-the-counter medications, tissues and related items. For something more severe, like hepatitis A (blame those coffee cups!) or a staph infection, costs could range from $100 for an immunoglobulin injection to as much as $1,000 per day for an inpatient hospital stay, says hepatologist Stacey Weiland. (The average cost to treat acute hepatitis adds up to about $2,500, she says.)
Fight back: Besides being too grossed out to go into work, Gerba says that one of the best ways to prevent illness is to clean your desk, phone and any other surfaces you touch each day with disinfecting wipes, as well as by making sure you wash your hands throughout the day.
A typical professional participates in a daily triathlon of chair-sitting, keyboard-typing, and computer staring for hours at a stretch, and all of those activities pose physical risks. Musculoskeletal disorders like carpel tunnel syndrome and back pain contributed to one-third of workers’ compensation claims, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s “Ergonomics: The Study of Work” report. While it’s rare that office conditions directly cause back pain severe enough to require surgery (it’s more likely office conditions exacerbated a previous injury), they do cause most cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, says Bryce G. Rutter, founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group, an ergonomics and design firm. About 3% of women and 2% of men will be diagnosed with this disorder in their lifetime, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
What it costs: The vast majority of employees will be able to treat workplace physical ailments with a few aspirin, some ergonomic tweaks to the office space or the occasional massage – in total, less than $500 a year. But severe back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome may set you back thousands. Lower back surgery, for example, costs between $75,000 to $100,000. That’s not counting physical therapy, which could cost $20,000 or more, says Fernando Branco, the medical director of Rosomoff Comprehensive Pain Center at Miami Jewish Health Systems. Carpal tunnel surgery costs between about $10,000 and $20,000 in most cases, including relatively minor physical therapy and medication, he says. Most insurance companies will assume most of the cost for these procedures, though you can still expect these conditions to cost you hundreds, if not thousands, in out-of-pocket costs.
Fight back: Sitting at your desk properly can help prevent these injuries. Make sure that the height of your keyboard is such that your upper arm and forearm are curved at a roughly 90 degree angle, and that the height of your chair is high enough so your chest and upper thighs are also at a 90 degree angle, says Rutter.
Employees are reporting higher levels of stress than ever before, studies show, and “stressed workers are more likely to become ill, become ill more frequently, and call in sick more often,” says Manhattan psychologist Joseph Cilona. The toll of that stress is steep: health expenditures are 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Most commonly, stressed workers report colds, flu, sore throats, coughs and upper respiratory infections, plus higher-than-average incidences of anxiety, irritability and depression, he says. More severely, there’s also a 50% increased risk of heart disease and stroke for workers who are regularly stressed out, according to studies in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, the journal Stroke, and more .
What it costs: For most, stress-related health costs are likely to be less than $500 per year for over-the-counter medications and the occasional yoga or meditation class for anxiety. But if those high levels of stress lead to depression, heart disease or stroke, be prepared to open your wallet. The costs of treating depression could run up to $1,000 per month or more, considering the costs of therapy and possible medication, says Cilona. And insurance companies often limit the number of mental health visits they’ll pay for, he adds. The costs of major physical issues associated with stress are far higher: the cost of heart surgery is $62,500 in hospital charges alone, and a mild stroke with no complications can cost $25,000 for the ambulance, emergency room, a couple nights in the hospital with some tests, plus hundreds of dollars a month for medications. Insurance usually covers a significant amount of these costs, but you can still face thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, depending on your coverage.
Fight back: Try yoga and meditation, which, if practiced regularly, can reduce levels of workplace stress by 10% or more, according to research from Ohio State University . Stressed workers should also consider talking to colleagues who are in similar situations, as social support is an effective coping mechanism, says John M. Grohol, founder and CEO of PyschCentral.com. He also recommends other stress-busting habits like getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol and improving time-management skills.