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On the heels of a virulent flu season, employers no doubt are examining how they can help employees stay well — and stay on the job. While researchers have yet to find a cure for the flu or the common cold, a new study shows that simply giving workers easy access to over-the-counter (OTC) medications at work helps keep them on the job.
The study was conducted by University of Michigan researchers in Ann Arbor and funded by Textilease Medique, a company based in Wood Dale, IL, that provides unit-dose, nonprescription medications nationwide for use in occupational health. The research used a random sample of hourly workers at an automotive manufacturing plant. It found that 85% of those workers reported staying on the job when they had convenient access to OTC medications, such as analgesics (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen), cold/cough and antidiarrheal medications, antacids, and skin ointments.
Workers reported that the medications reduced their symptoms enough so they could stay on the job and finish their shifts. The study also found that workers frequently experience a variety of treatable symptoms while on the job. More than 73% reported they regularly experienced headaches, colds, and sinus problems while at work. Almost all of those surveyed (98%) said access to medications helped them feel well enough to complete their shifts.
Debbie Woodruff, RN, an occupational health nurse at Baxter Health care in Tampa Bay, FL, says she has seen evidence that workplace access to medications can make the difference between a worker staying home or remaining at work. "Every day I meet with employees suffering from colds, headaches, and similar ailments," she says. "Although some people should go home, many with milder symptoms don’t want to. In these cases, I offer them various medications to provide relief so they can be comfortable and do their jobs."
The author of the study, Yvonne Abdoo, RN, PhD, at the University of Michigan, says the study shows the value and potential financial impact of providing OTC medications in the workplace. "We now have data that underscore just how valuable this is in keeping workers on the job and preserving productivity," she says. "While the study was conducted using hourly workers at a manufacturing plant, it has implications for employers of all types. On-site health services, such as medications, appear to be a small investment with a large return."
Abdoo says employers who provide OTC medications at work also experience a halo effect of goodwill. "Even though it has bottom-line value, employees also know that it’s a caring gesture — a perk," she says.