PUBLIC HEALTH
October 5, 2010

Bad Habits = Costly Workers

People who smoke, overeat, or don't exercise take more sick days; those who drink take fewer. Go figure.

A new study from the Netherlands finds that people with bad lifestyle habits take more sick days and have lower productivity at work than their healthier counterparts. Does this come as a complete surprise? Possibly not, but this is one of the first studies to show a measurable relationship between lifestyle, work productivity, and absenteeism.

The authors found that smoking, obesity, and, amazingly, low fruit and vegetable intake were all associated with lower productivity.

In the study, the research team led by Suzan J. W. Robroek followed over 10,600 people from 49 different companies. They asked the participants questions about their lifestyle habits, including amount of exercise, diet, and whether and how often they smoked or drank alcohol. The participants’ productivity on the job was assessed by questions about how much work they had gotten done during the previous day. The number of sick days they had taken in the previous year was also established.

Robroek found that obese employees were 66% more likely to take between 10 and 24 sick days in a year than their normal weight counterparts. They were also 55% more likely to take more than 25 sick days per year. Those who smoked were also more apt to call in sick — their odds were 30% greater of taking 10-24 sick days than non-smokers. And people who reported the least amount of physical activity were also more likely to call in sick than active people.

Interestingly, alcohol use (more than ten glasses per week) was associated with fewer sick days. The authors suggest that the health benefits of drinking a little alcohol every now and again may be responsible for the trend seen here.

How was productivity on the job affected by lifestyle choices? The authors found that like sick days, smoking, obesity, and, amazingly, low fruit and vegetable intake were all associated with lower productivity.

Overall, more than 10% of all sick days were the result of these lifestyle choices. The authors suggest that interventions designed to help people become healthier by changing their lifestyles "may have a noticeable contribution to maintaining a productive workforce."

The study was carried out by researchers at Erasmus Medical Center and published in the September 27, 2010 online edition of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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