Worker Health Woes Hurt U.S. Economy

August 31, 2005-- Posted at 2:30 PM CDT

(HealthDay News) -- When American workers get sick, America suffers: A new report finds illness and other health troubles cost the nation more than $260 billion in lost productivity each year.

Those losses result from adults who stopped working due to disease or disability; workers who took sick days to care for themselves or others; and workers who come to work unable to focus because they are sick or because they are preoccupied with sick relatives, according to the new Commonwealth Fund report.

"We've been talking too much about how much it costs to provide health insurance and not enough about what we lose as a country and as employers by having employees who are too sick to work," said Karen Davis, president of the Commonwealth Fund and lead author of the report, called Health and Productivity Among U.S. Workers.

"This is a call for investing in the health of workers and one important way to do that is to make sure they have health insurance coverage," she added. "There are also wellness programs that employers can mount that can make a difference, and benefit policies, such as paid time off to see a physician or dentist."

According to Davis, this is the first national estimate of the total economic cost of lost time, combining days missed because of illness and "present-eeism" -- being on the job but not being able to concentrate.

The survey, which relied on telephone interviews with more than 4,000 working-age adults, found that about 18 million Americans aged 19 to 64 -- or 12 percent of this age segment -- are not employed because they are too disabled or sick.

Even if this labor is priced at minimum wage, the income loss still amounts to $185 billion a year, the report found.

"The magnitude was surprising and we were fairly conservative in trying to estimate the economic cost of lost labor time," Davis said.

In addition, about 69 million workers reported missing days because of an illness, for a total of 407 million days of lost time at work.

"That added up to an economic cost of about $48 billion a year," Davis said

Approximately 55 million workers reported being unable to concentrate at work because of their own illness or a family member's illness, for an additional 478 million days per year of reduced productivity.

"That adds another $27 billion to the price tag," Davis said.

The survey also found that workers who did not have paid time off to seek medical care were more likely to report missing work or being unable to concentrate on the job.

Single or married adults with children were more likely to report taking sick days and to have concentration problems at work than childless adults.

Although the report clearly points to policies such as health insurance and paid time off that would reduce this burden, it's still unclear how much such strategies would help.

"We don't have in this report how much that would go down," Davis said. "It's obviously not going to go to zero because we will always have people with cancer and stroke."

But she added that, "We know -- particularly if you're uninsured -- [that] you're less likely to get medications that control chronic conditions like hypertension or diabetes, which means you're going to have complications and retire early, drop out of the labor force, or not have cancer detected at an early stage with a prognosis for full recovery."

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

More information

View the complete report at the Commonwealth Fund (

 SOURCES: Karen Davis, Ph.D., president, Commonwealth Fund, New York City; Health and Productivity Among U.S. Workers

Copyright © 2005 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.