Testing for Infectious Disease

Mark L. Johnson / June 2020

Should you pay for COVID-19 testing for your crews? The government may help care for these expenses, depending on where you live, but I also came across some research that shows this can be an investment opportunity for your company.
    
Recently, researchers at Northwestern University, the World Bank, the University of East Anglia and the Modibbo Adama University of Technology learned that the simple act of testing employees for infectious disease leads those workers to become more productive.
    
Infectious disease testing—in this case, testing for malaria—generated significant productivity gains for employers and a bigger paycheck for the workers themselves.
    
“The finding offers an important lesson for any business facing the threat of infectious disease, whether malaria or COVID-19,” reports KelloggInsight in the article, “How Infectious-Disease Testing Can Improve Employee Performance.”

Health Knowledge Impacts Work Behavior
The researchers—Andrew Dillon with the Public–Private Interface Initiative at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Ashesh Prasann and Jed Friedman of the World Bank, Pieter Serneels at the University of East Anglia, and Oladele Akogun at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology—undertook a series of experiments at a large Nigerian sugarcane farm.
    
They studied 800 sugarcane workers who, each morning, would choose one of two possible tasks for the day: (1) cutting sugarcane rods, or (2) bundling the cut rods. Cutting paid the average worker about 1,000 Nigerian naira a day. Bundling, a less physically demanding task, paid 500 naira a day.
    
All employees had access to the malaria testing and treatment program. The 36 percent who tested positive for malaria were given treatment, which kills the disease-causing parasite. Those testing positive were generally back at work within a few weeks, upon which their actives were analyzed.
    
The researchers tracked the number of days employees worked, the tasks they chose to perform, the number of sugarcane rods cut per day, the number of bundles generated per day and each worker’s total earnings. A few employees were given Fitbits to wear as a way to track their physical activity.
    
The results showed that malaria testing and treatment boosted overall earnings and the number of days worked each by about 10%—for both the workers who tested negative for malaria and those who tested positive. Further, the medical program encouraged more workers to choose the more difficult cane cutting task, rather than the less taxing cane bundling task.
    
The group that tested positive for malaria was interesting. After they received treatment and recovered, they came to work more often than before. The increased activity raised their earnings and brought productivity gains for their employer.
    
But even those who tested negative for malaria—knowing they were free of the disease—took on more strenuous work, worked more days on the farm and upped their total salaries. Health knowledge made them want to do more.

Knowledge Impacts Behavior
Can you see the implication here for COVID-19? People work harder when they know that an infectious disease is being addressed.
    
But there’s more. The earnings and productivity gains outweighed the costs of the medical testing and treatment. The program “increased earnings by more than $13 per employee [over a three-week period], while the cost of implementing the program was just $10 per employee,” KelloggInsight says.
    
Because sick employees can recover from malaria, the Nigerian farm could spend less on training replacements. Even supervisory tasks could be scaled back, since knowledge of a clean bill of health motivated everyone to work harder.
    
Sure, there is as yet no proven treatment or cure for COVID-19. But on a Nigerian farm, workers with access to disease testing inspired them to work harder and longer on the job.
    
Could it do the same for us in construction?
    
Your employees would appreciate being able to resolve some uncertainty about their health and the health of others on the job site. If they do, they’ll break more of a sweat.
    
That gets us to a big question: Who should pay for infectious disease testing?
    
“Certainly the public-health system should be the first stop for workers,” Dillon says. “But for very physical workers especially, we know that there’s this link between being healthy and being more productive on the job. It’s certainly within a firm’s interest to make these types of investments because it can reduce supervision and turnover in their labor forces.”

Mark L. Johnson writes for the walls and ceilings industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.