How America's Weight Problem Is Costing the Workforce

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Does a doughnut a day equal more sick days? New research suggests obesity is costing the country billions of dollars in lost productivity. (Peter Dazeley/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images) 

YouTube and Facebook get a lot of flack for distracting employees at the office, but there’s a much larger reason some workers aren’t getting the job done: their weight.

In the United States, obesity is responsible for $8.65 billion in lost workplace productivity each year, according to a new Yale and Columbia University study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

“Obesity and healthy-living behaviors are often seen as just individual choices,” study co-author Y. Claire Wang, co-director of the Obesity Prevention Initiative at Columbia University, told Yahoo Health. “But our paper really highlights the fact that the burden is beyond just individual choices.”

To calculate exactly how much manpower the U.S. loses each year due to obesity, the researchers analyzed data about height, weight, and missed workdays for health reasons among 14,975 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1998 to 2008); they also considered national data from 2012 examining body mass index (BMI) by state of more than 100,000 people. 

While being overweight didn’t emerge as a risk factor for taking sick days, obesity did — in fact, the higher an employee’s BMI rose above the obesity threshold, the more days that person tended to be absent. Specifically, compared to normal-weight workers, those with a BMI of 30 to about 35 missed 27 percent more workdays per year, while the most severely obese — those with a BMI of 40 or higher — were absent 44 percent more often.

The obvious explanation: “Being overweight is associated with some health risks, but not as much as obesity,” said study co-author Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Although the study didn’t determine which specific conditions keep obese workers off the job, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes probably play significant roles in absenteeism. With these conditions, “more health care and disability is needed, and there are just more days that they’re not feeling well,” said Wang. Though less life-threatening, joint trouble has also emerged as a health problem that prevents heavier employees from being productive, she said. 

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As employees get larger, so do the costs associated with missed workdays. On average, a company incurs a loss of $260 per year in productivity for every obese employee, the study found, and that number may be as high as $465 if the person is extremely obese. 

On a national level, this adds up: The researchers estimate that the United States sustains more than $8 billion in lost productivity each year as a side effect of obesity, with California sustaining the largest portion of that sum: $907 million. “In places where the local cost of living and average wage is higher, it really adds up,” Wang said. (This is also true in Washington D.C., Connecticut, and New Jersey.)

As dramatic as those numbers sound, they still don’t represent the full scope of obesity-attributable productivity losses, said Andreyeva. “We just looked at absenteeism. Another part of productivity is presenteeism — you’re at work, but you’re not actually getting any work done,” she said. “To your employer, that’s a significant cost.” The data on presenteeism is lacking, but Andreyeva believes that if included in their calculations, it would cause the numbers to increase significantly.

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The researchers hope their work will compel more states to address obesity — even if only out of economic motivation. Wang pointed out that just as tech companies target areas with highly educated people, a number of corporations are similarly starting to consider obesity and diabetes rates in certain areas when deciding where to base their operations. “Companies want healthy individuals. If you have a high burden of disease in your workforce, the turnover, the disability payments are out of your pocketbook,” she said. “Policymakers should consider this — they want their state to be competitive. So it’s also a business decision. Prevention could be a better investment than paying for their health care once people are sick.”

Wang points to efforts made in “progressive” states like California — the soda tax recently passed in Berkeley, for example — but also to notoriously obese states like Mississippi and cities like Philadelphia. “They’re doing really innovative work,” she said. In Philadelphia, for example, a nonprofit called The Food Trust created the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a program that helps supply reasonably priced fruits and vegetables to bodegas that normally purvey packaged foods.

“That’s the sort of thing that paves the road for private investment to come in,” Wang said. “There are societal consequences [to obesity], and we’re all in this together. So hopefully something will be done. Even if the prevalence of obesity [in your state] is OK, but the cost of losing a worker is high [due to wage rates], then policymakers really need to pay attention.” 

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