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Presenteeism more than a health risk

Rising company healthcare costs may be linked to "presenteeism," a recent study suggests.
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(CNN) -- The only thing worse than an employee calling in sick is having them sniveling and sneezing all over you.

You're worried about germs, you wish they'd blow their nose but you're not going to tell them to go home.

"Presenteeism" may sound like just another business buzzword but studies are beginning to show that it poses more than a health risk.

"It's a word that was basically coined to look at someone who is at work but may not be maximally productive," says Harvard Business Review senior editor Paul Hemp.

"We all know we go to work when we don't feel like it and get less done. There was a study at Bank One, the U.S. bank, that found that on an annual basis the cost of lost productivity of presenteeism was more than $300 million a year.

"Interestingly this was twice as much as what the company spent on healthcare insurance for its employees, which is an area that companies are currently trying to reign in because of sky-rocketing costs.

"It appears that it may often be the case that the majority of those costs may be a result of people being at work but not working up to top form."

Amy Farler, a truck component designer at the International Truck and Engine Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has been a chronic allergy sufferer for most of her adult life.

For years she suffered without complaint, showing up to work even when she was unwell.

"I would have sinus headaches and a lot of pressure," Farler recalls. "Staring at a computer in that condition was really difficult so I'm sure that there were times that the work didn't get the attention that it needed for that day."

Fortunately for Farler, International Truck is one of a handful of companies tackling presenteeism head on. Three years ago it launched a pilot allergy study, appointing an on-site specialist.

The results came as a surprise to vice president for health Dr. William B. Bunn.

"What we saw was that 20 to 25 percent of our employees suffered allergies and we found that they had substantially reduced productivity because of these allergies or the medications they may be taking for these allergies," says Dr. Bunn.

"We found that individuals who are not at their maximum health are not as productive at work and not as happy at home."

Following the initiative, Farler sought advice from an allergist with immediate results.

"I was tested for the first time in my entire life and saw some major improvement of my symptoms," she says.

International Truck says that tackling common complaints like allergies or the flu pays off. Amy Farler for one couldn't agree more.

"It's a wonderful feeling to go to work and not have any of those symptoms. I would say that my productivity would have increased by 75 percent. It really has changed my life."

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