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Obesity’s Hidden Cost: Lost Productivity at Work

Study Shows ‘Presenteeism’ Is a Health-Related Cost of Obsesity
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 8, 2010 - The health-related cost of obesity among U.S. workers is $73.1 billion a year -- enough to pay the salaries of 1.8 million new workers.

Surprisingly, most of this cost comes in the form of "presenteeism" -- lost productivity due to poor health, find Eric Finkelstein, PhD, of Duke University and colleagues.

In a study funded by Allergan Inc., which makes a gastric band system for obesity surgery, Finkelstein's team set out to estimate the health-related costs of obesity.

Surprisingly, they found that presenteeism is the major driver of health-related costs to employers -- for all workers, not just those who are obese.

Even for normal weight-workers, the cost of presenteeism is as high as the cost of medical expenditures," Finkelstein tells WebMD. "Even among full-time employees who are normal weight, health problems undermine productivity to a large extent."

In terms of absenteeism (days of work missed), presenteeism (lost productivity due to poor health), and direct medical costs, the annual health cost of a normal-weight employee is about $10,000. But for the most extremely obese workers -- those about 100 pounds overweight -- the cost is about $16,000.

About 37% of the obese population in the U.S. is in the two highest grades of obesity -- a body mass index (BMI) of 35 to 39 and a BMI of 40 or more. But these two groups are responsible for 61% of the costs resulting from excess weight, Finkelstein and colleagues calculate.


Presenteeism Major Health Cost

Finkelstein is quick to note that the biggest health-related cost to employers is presenteeism -- and that it's hard to get an exact estimate.

In their study, the researchers used data from the 2008 U.S. National Health and Wellness Survey, a series of self-administered, Internet-based questionnaires fielded to 63,000 members of a nationally representative consumer panel.

People were asked how many days in the past week they were in poor health. They were then asked to estimate, on a 0 to 10 scale, how much their health affected them when they were working. If a person gave an answer of 3 (with zero being fully productive and 10 being not productive at all), the researchers assumed that person was 30% less productive. Days of poor health were then multiplied out to give an annual estimate of presenteeism.

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