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Sick workers major problem, health department chief says

By Megan Workman

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Employees who go to work sick but spend the day talking about their health problems are a "clear and present trouble" in today's workforce, the head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said Friday.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, speaking at the South Charleston Chamber of Commerce's 21st annual Groundhog Breakfast and Economic Forecast, said people who show up to work sick - which he called "employee presenteeism" -- instead of staying home still cost businesses money.

Full-time workers who are chronically overweight or obese miss an additional 450 million days per year across the nation, Gupta said.

Gupta said chronic medical conditions such as obesity and tobacco use are the root cause of most people's health problems.

The total cost of worker presenteeism to U.S. employers has increased to more than $150 million lost in productivity, he said.

Workers who stay on the job while ill aren't able to complete their tasks on time, make more errors, and often miss deadlines, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition, by continuing to stay at work, workers forgo the rest and treatment that their health condition may require, according to the BLS.

"When we talk about health, we often don't think about employees or coworkers but we need to think about worksite wellness," Gupta told the crowd. "Our [presenteeism] numbers are four-times worse than those in the United Kingdom. It's not a global problem, it's an American problem."

Gupta's concern is especially relevant considering Kanawha County -- and the rest of the country -- experienced the "worst flu season in a decade," he said.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has also received an increase in community calls for information about how to stop the spread of gastrointestinal illness, or the stomach flu, which is making its way through the area.

"We have reached a peak so hopefully it won't get any worse for the flu. It's a pretty bad [flu] season," Gupta said. "Health is where you are as an employee, it's not just in the doctor's office. Health is in your community and at work."

Increasing access to healthy opportunities is important and something businesses should consider, he said.

Offering structured and physical activities at work, providing 15-minute breaks (although those typically lead to smoke breaks, he said) and setting goals, such as installing bicycle racks, encourages healthy decisions at work, Gupta said.

Gupta understands the value of workplace wellness; the health department executive director installed a gym at the Lee Street office when he started working there, he said.

Employees can step on a treadmill, lift weights and exercise with the Wii interactive video game during their workday.

"It wasn't a huge investment, either. The idea is if you don't do it, you're not part of that thinking. Employees have skin in this game," Gupta said.

Employers should think about having a wellness committee to organize healthy activities, he said.

"If nothing else, at least start something. Understanding workers' needs and wants [is significant]. Data is power," Gupta said.

Also on Thursday:

• State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey asked the public to send their ideas to his office so he can "collaboratively work with you to change the fact that we're always at the bottom."

"The state government and attorney general can be a positive force for economic growth," Morrisey said. "There is an incredible chance for West Virginia to move forward in economic rankings. Together we can work to improve the state's economic climate."

Morrisey said his office plans to host a job summit for various industries across the state.

He also wants to ensure West Virginia has a "fertile economic environment" concerning the state's budget.

"No one person possesses a monopoly of how we can improve economic growth in West Virginia," he said.

• West Virginia State University President Brian Hemphill said the university is focused on recruitment -- applications are already up this year, he said -- retention, and degree completion.

Hemphill said the school has established a degree completion task force, which "has great work to do" to keep students enrolled.

WVSU is adding academic programs that will help workforce throughout the state, he said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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