March 7, 2016 / 4:37 PM / a year ago

YOUR MONEY-Money stress is a productivity killer at work

4 Min Read

NEW YORK, March 7 (Reuters) - Everyone knows worrying about money can make it harder to do your job. But recent research suggests it is costing some employees more than two work weeks a year in productivity.

That is more than just some morning fog before the second cup of coffee kicks in. And it is a cause of what workplace gurus call "presenteeism" - where you are at work but not fully functioning due to illness or severe stress - which accounts for more lost time than actual sick days, when people are fully absent from their jobs.

Workers who say money concerns keep them from doing their jobs lost 12.4 days due to presenteeism in 2015, and just 3.5 days to absence, according to a new study on financial worries from Willis Towers Watson, a leading benefits firm.

"With a lot of desk jobs, you can fade away for a few hours, but those hours have to be made up in some capacity. It starts to compound," says Steve Nyce, a senior economist for Willis Towers Watson, who led the study.

Figuring out the dollar cost of this lost productivity is tricky, so most calculations are done by lost hours on the job, says Debra Lerner, a professor at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, who is one of the leading scholars on presenteeism.

Willis Towers Watson's study made use of the kind of methodology that Lerner and her colleagues developed to measure presenteeism, which is to ask workers about performance problems during the previous two weeks, and then delve further into the reasons for any lost focus.

Depression is always in the top five, Lerner says. Employees with a major depressive episode will lose 15 percent to 20 percent of their productivity in a given year. Workers with more mild forms of depression also experience productivity loss. And while it is at a lower level, the periods of lost productivity could last longer.

Stress can lead to a host of physical ailments, says Walter 'Buzz' Stewart, another pioneer in the study of presenteeism, who is now a chief researcher for Sutter Health, a nonprofit healthcare system based in Northern California.

"Every organ has at least one chronic episodic condition -asthma, lower-back pain, migraine, depression or anxiety," Stewart says. "They come and go, and often their onset is mediated by stress."

Help Is Out There

While some 85 percent of employers offer traditional options to cope with stress through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), more are starting to offer specific financial management help too, Nyce says.

The options range from financial planning seminars to help with budgeting apps.

"There's a solution for everything out there," says Nyce.

Fidelity Investments just launched a new series of seminars called Thrive, aimed at promoting financial literacy among women. It is offering seminars at workplaces around the country.

Ron Goetzel, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins University and a vice-president at Truven Health Analytics, is also part of a nonprofit group the Health Project (thehealthproject.com) that awards prizes each year to companies with the best wellness programs.

Both 2014 winners had special programs to help alleviate financial stress. At energy company BP's U.S. headquarters in Houston, employees receive one-on-one financial coaching and 10 different classes to help with financial stress.

American Cast Iron Pipe Co, based in Birmingham, Alabama, offers financial planning and debt avoidance counseling, among its other offerings like smoking cessation programs.

Lowering stress among employees can be a good indicator of a healthy business for investors. Goetzel recently tallied up the performance of all the companies that have won awards since 2000. If a person had invested $10,000 in an index made up of those companies, the rate of return would be 325 percent, versus just 105 percent for the S&P 500 during the same time period, he said. (Editing by Lauren Young and Bill Rigby)

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