Obese workers miss more work days, and those absences carry high costs at the state and national level, say Yale University researchers.
In a new study, researchers led by Yale’s Dr. Tatiana Andreyeva, PhD, analyzed nationwide data sources to estimate the annual cost of obesity-related absences. The findings, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reveal that obesity-attributable absenteeism among American workers costs the nation an estimated $8.65 billion per year.
Obesity, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, exacts a tremendous price on overweight individuals, leading to serious chronic health conditions, disability, and psychological suffering. Obese individuals are at increased risk of a variety of ailments including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and even premature death.
But with nearly two-thirds of American adults classified as overweight or obese, the effects of obesity also place a significant burden on society at large.
“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 just how much productivity is lost due to obesity each year, the researchers analyzed data on 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) data of more than 100,000 people, groups into statewide categories.
The results showed that obese workers missed significantly more work days: an average of 1.1 to 1.7 additional absences per year, compared to normal-weight workers. There was no significant increase in absences for workers who were overweight but not obese.
The costs associated with obesity-related absences varied by state, mainly reflecting variations in average daily earnings. Obesity accounted for an average 9.3 percent of total absenteeism costs, ranging from 6.5 percent in the District of Columbia to 12.6 percent in Arkansas.
Obesity is associated with high direct costs for medical care, but the societal costs due to health-related work absences and reduced productivity could be even higher, the researchers say. They point out that because many obesity-related policies are made on the state and local levels, it is important quantify the costs of obesity at these levels.
“Obesity-attributable costs of absenteeism are substantial and impose a considerate financial drain on states” the researchers conclude. Calling for further research, they add, “It is important to discuss further how these costs vary across employers, employees, and industries, and what policies prove effective in reducing productivity losses of obesity.”