Study Tallies High Costs of Health-Related Lost Work Productivity

Newswise -- Employee health problems cost U.S. employers $226 billion per year, with about 70 percent of the losses resulting from reduced productivity rather than work absences, reports a study in the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Led by Walter F. Stewart, PhD, MPH, of the AdvancePCS Center for Work and Health, Hunt Valley, Md., the researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of approximately 29,000 U.S. workers. Lost productivity time (LPT) for personal and family health reasons was measured in hours and dollars, and contributing factors were assessed.

Nationwide costs related to LPT for 2002 were estimated at $226 billion, averaging approximately $1,700 per worker. The average employee lost two hours of productive work time per week.

Overall, 71 percent of LPT costs were attributed to reduced performance at work, whereas just 23 percent resulted from work absences. The remaining six percent of LPT costs resulted from absences for family health reasons.

For female workers, LPT for personal health reasons was 30 percent higher than for men. Employees who smoked at least a pack of cigarettes per day had productivity losses twice as high as those of nonsmokers.

Productivity losses also varied by job characteristics. Workers in "high demand, low control" occupations-which have been linked to high levels of job stress-had lower health-related LPT than those in "low demand, high control" jobs. The authors suspect that this is because workers with more control over their jobs can more easily adjust their work pace to how they are feeling that day.

Workers earning over $50,000 per year accounted for 17 percent of LPT hours, but 34 percent of the resulting costs.

Many studies have looked at the costs of health-related absences from work. However, relatively little is known about the costs of reduced productivity related to health problems. Such losses occur when workers who are not feeling well go to work but have reduced job performance, such as difficulty concentrating, working more slowly, or feeling fatigued.

Though less tangible, these losses related to reduced productivity have a greater monetary impact than health-related absences, the new results suggest. "Health-related LPT costs are substantial but largely invisible to employers," Stewart and coauthors conclude.

Data on worker and job characteristics will help companies to estimate their health-related LPT costs and to retarget their healthcare dollars to more effectively address workers' needs. Because of the increased productivity losses for smokers, greater investment in smoking-cessation programs is a promising approach for employers to reduce their LPT costs.

ACOEM, an international society of 6,000 occupational physicians and other healthcare professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.

Source: American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM)

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