Ailing and overweight Americans cost billions in productivity

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Full-time U.S. workers who have chronic health troubles or are overweight cost more than $153 billion in lost productivity each year from absenteeism, according to a Gallup-Healthways study released on Monday.

Compared with non-overweight healthy workers, the 86 percent of U.S. workers who have weight or health issues, or both, miss an estimated 450 million extra days of work a year, the study said.

“The high percentages of full-time U.S. workers who have less than ideal health are a significant drain on productivity for U.S. businesses,” the report said.

The $153 billion in annual lost productivity costs linked to unhealthy or overweight workers in the United States is more than four times the cost found in Britain, the study said.

The sharp difference is the result of fewer unhealthy workers in Britain. Only about 14 percent of full-time U.S. workers are of “normal” weight and have no chronic illnesses, compared with 20 percent in Britain, the study said.

Gallup based its study on surveys of 109,875 full-time workers -- those who work at least 30 hours per week -- between January 2 and October 2. The survey had a margin of error of up to plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

Under the survey, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index used respondents’ self-reports of their height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI) scores. BMI values of 30 or higher were classified as “obese,” 25 to 29.9 were “overweight,” and 18.5 to 24.9 were “normal weight”.

In addition to weight, chronic health conditions included having ever been diagnosed with a heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes, asthma, or depression; and recurring physical pain in the neck or back or knee or leg in the last 12 months.

Gallup calculated unhealthy days using answers to a question about how many days in the past month respondents found poor health kept them from doing their usual activities.

Full-time workers who were not overweight and suffered no chronic health conditions averaged 0.34 unhealthy days each month, or about four days per year, with a tiny rise for workers who were overweight with no chronic conditions.

At the other end of the scale, overweight workers with three or more chronic health conditions reported an average of about 42 unhealthy days per year, about the same as non-overweight workers with similar health woes.

Poll results indicated that respondents missed an actual day of work for roughly every three unhealthy days.

The survey showed that over 30 percent of workers were overweight and had one or two chronic health problems, while nearly 18 percent were overweight and had three or more chronic health issues.

Including presenteeism, when employees go to work but are less productive because of poor health or well-being, would increase the estimate of lost productivity, the study said.

Including part-time employees would also add to the estimate of costs in lost productivity.

“Other research that has examined a broader array of factors using a somewhat different list of chronic conditions places the economic effect of lost productivity at $1.1 trillion per year,” the study said.

Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston