One tech CEO’s ingenious idea to get workers to stop feeling guilty for going to the doctor

Too many workers feel they don’t have time for check-ups.
Too many workers feel they don’t have time for check-ups.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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American employers increasingly expect workers to be available at all times. Employees rarely leave their desks to have lunch, let alone to visit the doctor. As the co-founder and CEO of Zocdoc, an online scheduling service for medical care, that concerns me—not least because I’ve found that many of my own employees have been putting work before their own health.

Even at the most progressive companies, many employees worry that they will be judged or penalized if they take time off for a routine check-up. An August 2016 survey of over 2,000 Americans that Zocdoc recently conducted in partnership with Kelton Global found that 60% of American workers feel uncomfortable leaving work for preventive care, with half saying that their employer or company culture has made them feel that way.

The outcome? Nearly nine in 10 employees say they would cancel or delay a preventive care appointment due to workplace pressures. In short, the problem is not just that going to the doctor is stressful—it’s that people are too stressed out about missing work to go to the doctor.

In fact, we recently discovered that only one-third of Zocdoc’s over 500 employees are taking full advantage of the preventive care services covered by our premium insurance plan. This is disheartening, considering that we spend millions of dollars to pay for comprehensive insurance for our employees and their immediate family members.

When we asked our team members why they were putting off their proactive check-ups, we heard a recurring theme: work gets in the way. While I certainly admire my team’s dedication, I consider this a failure. The costs of perpetuating this unhealthy culture—for businesses and individuals alike—are simply too high to ignore.

The majority of Americans receive employer-sponsored insurance coverage that, under the Affordable Care Act, is required to cover a range of preventive services. But with so many employees putting work before health, companies are spending millions on underutilized benefits. Employees who neglect preventive care are also more likely to get sick, adding the further cost of lost productivity. According to one estimate, “presenteeism”—or workers performing below full productivity because they go to work sick—costs employers $160 billion per year, more than twice the estimated cost of absenteeism due to illness.

More importantly, there is the human toll. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Americans use preventive services at half the recommended rate. In total, the CDC reports that if every American received the recommended clinical preventive care, it would save more than 100,000 lives per year.

As both a doctor and a CEO, I am convinced that companies need to be more proactive about making preventive care a priority. That’s why Zocdoc is introducing a new initiative called Unsick Day on October 11.  In collaboration with a number of partners, we are asking companies to give their employees a new type of day off from work—without penalty, and with explicit permission and encouragement—to visit the doctor for that critical yet neglected preventive care appointment. We are also asking CEOs and executives to lead by example by taking an Unsick Day themselves. I plan to be visibly absent and step out of the office for a physical, and I’m encouraging my employees to do the same.

As we enter open enrollment season, which begins November 1, we can expect to hear plenty of discussion about the increasing number of insured Americans. That’s something to celebrate. But it’s not enough for employers to simply offer insurance. We must also empower our employees to use it.