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By Clark A. Marcus
Eye Care International
Like a wave hitting a beachfront and eroding the shoreline, a phenomenon now commonly known as "presenteeism" is slowing and invisibly eroding the effectiveness of the American work force.
Presenteeism signifies that a number of employees, even those with perfect attendance records on the job, are nonetheless working with impairments and disabilities causing them to work less efficiently, resulting in employers losing up to 32 times as much productivity from presenteeism as from absenteeism. Only recently has corporate thinking begun to make the obvious linkage between good vision and productivity.
Of the nearly 140 million people who are gainfully employed, almost 50% are 40 years of age or older, which is when presbyopia, the need for corrective eyewear for reading small print and performing detail work, begins to set in.
Several factors are affecting the general health of our workers, such as the increased use of computers, which emerges as a key factor in causing eyestrain. Eyestrain can cause all kinds of problems, such as poor vision, migraine headaches — which are in many cases ocular migraines — and a general sluggishness in the worker who finds the need to take frequent breaks away from the computer screen, thus increasing the company’s overall down time.
Baby boomers, who constitute a good part of this older work force, are generally more vain than previous generations and are not as likely to either announce that they have hit age 40 or rush out and buy a pair of glasses. And because older employees are often more experienced employees, and experienced employees can be their employer’s most valuable asset, the impact of their downtime is even greater. The net result is that as the relentless age wave continues to hit the work force on a daily basis, vision deteriorates, productivity goes down, and the employer is generally unaware; nobody is taking any measurements of those losses in the workplace. While we cannot stop the aging process, we must begin to measure and reduce its impact on the workplace.
A routine annual eye exam is the first and probably the most important step in substantially measuring the loss of productivity resulting from aging. Eye exams detect not only age-related conditions affecting the eyes such as presbyopia, but also diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses. Statistics tell us that one out of 20 employees in the United States has now been diagnosed as diabetic — in most cases Type 2 diabetes, which usually starts after age 40 and may first be diagnosed by way of an eye exam. There is a number of Type 2 diabetics in the work force who have simply not been diagnosed for a number of reasons, including the fact that they have not gone for either an eye exam or a general physical.
As recent studies by the Employers’ Health Coalition have shown, employers lose on average the equivalent of between 2.1 and 2.4 days a month from a person with diabetes who doesn’t miss one day of work during a measured period. With migraines, the number goes up to 5.7 days per month from a perfect-attendance employee.
Some of the other diseases adversely impacting the general population that are easily identifiable by way of a basic eye exam are retinal migraines, hypertension, high cholesterol, and tumors. By utilizing the simple tool of a routine eye exam, the employer can improve the general health of the work force, maintain and even increase productivity, decrease accidents in the workplace occasioned by poor vision, and play a significant role in preventive medicine.
It is estimated that employers lose between 4% and 19% productivity by reason of computer vision syndrome (CVS). The World Health Organization and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have recommended that people who use a computer more than three hours a day should be given at least one eye exam a year as a step toward preventing CVS. The routine eye exam will pick up signs of decreased vision, and can go a long way toward lessening the effects of CVS and identifying the need for other corrective measures.
Vision plan an important benefit
In the past 10 years, the national focus on better health and disease prevention, combined with our growing concerns about managed care, have led employees to their current choices in health care. And more than ever, while employees are seeking all types of preventive measures, especially routine eye care, employers have been slow to react to this work force need. With most of our work force being over age 40, it stands to reason that vision plans would become the most sought-after plan by employees. However, employers have, for the most part, continued to view those needs as demands from the employees’ side of the equation rather than viewing them as a warning sign of the impact poorly sighted employees can have on productivity.
The truism, "the healthier the employee, the healthier the bottom line," does not necessarily translate into the employer’s awareness of the simple and affordable steps that are available to achieve that goal. An effective vision plan represents a major positive step in that direction — a fact that appears to have gone unnoticed by most employers and now is only beginning to get the attention of some employer/human resource departments that are starting to gather information on how a solid vision plan can help them maintain productivity and a healthy work force.
While vision coverage is growing (from 15% of employers in 1993 to 30% in 1999), it still lags sorely behind other employee benefits and reflects the lack of recognition by employers of this need from their side of the equation. Indeed, the need appears to be most widely recognized by Fortune 100 and 500 companies. Benefit consultant Hewitt and Associates found that 43% of the more than 1,000 major U.S. employers now offer a vision plan, up 32% from 1992, only with the trickle-down effect impacting the rest of the working population.
Choosing the right plan
As they must with all new concepts, human resource departments are now wrestling with the problem of more clearly defining the needs of their work force and identifying and evaluating vision plans that will best suit not only the needs of their employees, but those of the employer, as well. Doing so creates a "win-win" situation.
While it is one thing to provide the employee with comprehensive vision coverage, the focus changes substantially when addressed from the employer/productivity perspective. From the employer’s point of view, the plan selected should not only provide the employee with real and affordable medical, surgical, and eyewear coverage, but it should almost mandate extensive utilization. From the employer’s side of the equation, the initial key goal should be an annual basic eye exam for every employee — even those under the age of 40 — and such plans do exist. The plan also should provide access to an ophthalmologist, as well as discounts on eyewear and a full range of corrective and surgical procedures.
The availability of the free eye exam creates a win-win situation since from the employer’s point of view, such a plan encourages the work force to take advantage of the eye exam benefit. This option, combined with access to an ophthalmologist, creates increased awareness about the value being provided to employees.
The road to corporate profitability must be navigated by employees with clear vision, and an all-encompassing vision plan is indispensable. As more and more employers start taking stock of their most valuable asset — their employees — it is certain that they will come to the realization that this asset, like other assets, requires constant, careful and, indeed, loving attention if it is to function optimally. That realization will inevitably draw employers to the conclusion that providing their work force with a meaningful, affordable vision plan is not a financial burden, but simply a good business investment.
[Clark A. Marcus is president and CEO of Eye Care International Inc., a Tampa, FL-based discount vision plan. He can be reached at: (813) 289-5552. E-mail: Beverly@eyecareintl.com.]