On any given day, a significant portion of your workforce is likely suffering from some kind of digestive distress. That’s because nearly one in four Americans lives with a digestive health condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease or another chronic gastrointestinal (GI) ailment.
These are largely invisible illnesses to those who aren’t affected, but they add up to significant direct and indirect costs for employers.
One casualty is productivity. Nearly 87% of subjects in one study of patients with irritable bowel disease reported a decline in their ability to work at their usual capacity because of their symptoms.
Participants in another analysis estimated an average loss of six hours of normal work focus per week. The repercussions reach beyond lagging individual work quality and output, impacting team performance as well as the business as a whole.
Debilitating GI symptoms such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain also contribute to absenteeism. According to one survey of more than 3,200 people, irritable bowel syndrome is responsible for an average of two missed days of work per month or 24 days per year.
Plus with or without IBS, abdominal pain is the #1 reason for doctor’s appointments and emergency room visits, followed by nausea/vomiting and diarrhea/gastroenteritis – all potentially causing employees to ditch their desks for medical consultations.
Then there are the financial ramifications. Digestive disorders typically rank among an organization’s top five healthcare expenses, taking a painful chunk out of the bottom line.
The cost to society is proportionately high, driving some $136 billion in annual medical claims (exceeding the total healthcare bill for trauma, mental health, and even heart disease) at an average cost of $17,200 per person per year (more than diabetes or treatment-resistant depression).
Part of that cost stems from prescription drugs, with five of the 15 most expensive medications dedicated to treating digestive disease.
Creating a work culture that recognizes the challenges faced by team members with digestive conditions can not only help attract and retain employees but also limit the collateral damage to your business.
Here are a few strategies that can help.
1) Listen to your employees’ concerns
Many people find it embarrassing to share their GI issues. They deal with their symptoms and conditions in silence out of embarrassment, shame and anxiety. These feelings, in turn, can worsen or trigger their symptoms.
HR teams and managers, make sure your employees know they can come to you to discuss their conditions, share reasons they may have to leave meetings or make frequent bathroom visits, and provide any suggestions they have for supporting their needs.
2) Make scheduling accommodations if possible
Flexible scheduling can help employees with digestive issues do their best work as well as reduce stress that can exacerbate the problem.
Someone who tends to experience symptoms such as multiple bowel movements in the morning, for example, may benefit from a change to their start time.
Providing the option to work from home during a bad episode can also be helpful.
3) Provide gut-friendly foods
Trigger foods that set off digestive symptoms vary from condition to condition as well as from person to person.
Fatty, fried, sugary and dairy foods are common irritants, so providing alternatives in the communal snack cabinet, company cafeteria, or for team dinners may help keep some GI distress at bay.
You might also consider consulting with a dietitian or surveying your workforce to determine how you can support their dietary needs.
4) Encourage exercise and stress reduction
If you already have incorporated these components into your corporate wellness initiatives, steering employees with gut health difficulties to participate in these activities can be beneficial.
Exercising, for example, can help move food through the digestive tract by increasing blood flow to that area. It may also enhance gut microbiota that aid digestion. Managing stress can lower inflammation in the gut and reduce GI upsets.
5) Add gut health support to your benefits program
Digital health programs designed specifically for employers can help employees control their GI symptoms while also trimming medical costs.
One organization that adopted this kind of program achieved a 15% reduction in digestive-related healthcare expenses, largely through a decline in emergency room visits and inpatient admissions. In addition, 70% of those enrolled in the program reported major improvements in their digestive health and well-being.
Given the prevalence of digestive disease and its impact on employers, helping employees improve their quality of life by supporting their gut health is likely to pay off on all fronts.
Taking steps in that direction will show employees that you have their back – and their gut.
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