Human Resources

Unhealthy Workers’ Absenteeism Costs $153 Billion

About 86% of full-time U.S. workers are above normal weight or have at least one chronic condition.

December 21, 2011
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Full-time workers who are overweight or obese and have other chronic health conditions miss an estimated 450 million additional days of work each year compared with healthy workers—resulting in more than $153 billion in lost productivity each year.

That’s the word from Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index data collected between Jan. 2 and Oct. 2, 2011. Gallup surveyed 109,875 full-time employees (those who work at least 30 hours per week) during this period.

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

Chronic health conditions in this analysis include:

  • Being overweight or obese;
  • Having been diagnosed with a heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes, asthma, or depression; and
  • Recurring physical pain in the neck, back, knee, or leg in the past 12 months.
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Gallup calculated unhealthy days using respondents' answers to the question, “During the past 30 days, for about how many days did poor health keep you from doing your usual activities?”

Full-time workers who are of normal weight and don’t suffer from chronic health conditions make up 13.9% of the U.S. workforce and average 0.34 unhealthy days each month—about four days per year.

The average number of unhealthy days per month is slightly higher (0.36) among those who are overweight or obese and don’t have additional chronic health conditions.

Unhealthy days per month increase to 1.08 for workers who are overweight or obese and have one to two additional chronic health conditions.

Workers who are of an above-normal weight and have three or more chronic health conditions report a significantly higher average number unhealthy days per month—3.51, or about 42 days per year.

To estimate how unhealthy days per month translate into missed work days, Gallup asked workers, “Earlier, you indicated that you had XX days in the last month where poor health prevented you from doing your usual activities. How many actual work days in the last month did you not work due to poor health?”

The results indicated that one unhealthy day per month for full-time workers is equivalent to about 0.31 actual missed days of work.

In comparison, the $153 billion in annual lost productivity costs linked to unhealthy workers in the U.S. is more than four times the cost in the United Kingdom. About 14% of full-time U.S. workers are of a normal weight and have no chronic illness, compared with 20% in the U.K.

“The high percentages of full-time workers who have less than ideal health are a significant drain on productivity for U.S. businesses,” Gallup reports. “However, employees and employers have the opportunity to potentially increase productivity if they address the health issues that are currently plaguing the workplace.”

Unhealthy workers

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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