Workers’ Comp and the Traveling Employee
By Mark Noonan
Have you seen the new advertisement on television for a hotel chain that shows a happy business traveler literally getting a leg up on the competition by swinging his leg onto a competitor’s shoulder? The advertisement takes the simplistic view that road warriors are happier and more productive when using smart apps for booking and staying at that hotel chain. However, research and industry literature paint a not-so-rosy picture of business travel, mainly due to travel-induced health problems that could eventually lead to workers’ compensation claims.
Several factors contribute to health risks in frequent business travelers — poor/insufficient sleep, fattening and salt-laden restaurant fare, long work days and long periods of inactivity. Those factors contribute to obesity, hypertension, heart disease and depression, according to studies. Long periods of sitting in cars, trains and planes increase circulatory problems and add stress to low back and joint problems, from which many people already suffer. In fact, the traveling lifestyles of many frequent business travelers equate to that of long-distance truckers (sans the cool horn), since most business travel in the United States is by car.
The push for expense cost control during the downturn in the economy has also undoubtedly impacted employee traveler health — with well-meaning organizations pushing employees to travel earlier or later on economy flights. Cuts in many organizations also included health club/fitness room charges and baggage checking fees. Though many frequent travelers have learned the value of packing light, I’ve heard plenty of stories about people who have wrenched their backs attempting to squeeze luggage into overhead racks to avoid fees. Your “lightweight” laptops seem to get heavier with each passing day on the road and the use of shoulder straps, rather than rollers, adds more strain to backs and joints.
In a groundbreaking study last year, published in the ?Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine,? Columbia University researchers compared health risks for employees with different levels of business travel, using data from more than 13,000 employees in corporate wellness programs. Nearly 80 percent of employees in the study traveled at least one overnight period a month. One percent were “extensive travelers,” who virtually lived on the road and spend 20 or more nights per month away from home.
Rates of self-reported “less-than-good-health” increased with nights traveled. Those “extensive travelers” were 260 percent more likely to rate their health as fair to poor, compared to the lighter travelers. Other health risk factors showed similar patterns: Obesity was 92 percent more likely for extensive travelers as was high blood pressure and unfavorable cholesterol levels.
As an industry, we know that obesity ramps up workers’ compensation costs. In 2010, NCCI published a paper on the relationship between obesity and the cost of workers’ compensation claims. To no one’s surprise, the study concluded that medical costs for the same injury are three times higher among obese claimants in the first year, rising to five times higher at 60 months.
Of course, more research is needed to substantiate a link between frequent business travel and increased health risks such as obesity. However, I do believe that, at the intersection of workers’ compensation and employee travel, there are additional avenues that wellness programs can develop to help employees manage their health.
Organizations would be well-served to encourage collaboration between wellness, risk management and human resource departments to substantiate health risks and develop programs geared around employee travelers. More organizations need to recognize the necessity of assisting employees in finding creative ways to exercise, eat right and reduce stress during business travel. Steps that progressive organizations are already taking to help employees stay healthy while they’re on the roadinclude:
* Booking hotels with fitness facilities or walking trails;
* Providing in-room workout DVDs or downloads;
* Offering travel stress-management classes and weight-management tools;
* Tying meal reimbursements to healthier food choices;
* Providing sample menus and calorie counts; and
* Giving employees comp time to decompress after extensive travel.
As summer ends and we head into the heavy business travel season this fall, the organizational push for employees to meet year-end targets and sales goals will increase in intensity. Organizations that assist their employee travelers to regain some semblance of control of diet and activity schedules, and manage health while on the road should see employees who meet both professional and personal targets. And, at the intersection of business travel and workers’ compensation, these empowered road warriors will continue on a path to wellness.