Why Are Obese Workers Less Productive?

If you’re not your most productive self, maybe you need to lose weight. In a huge study of more than 7,000 American workers (Ricci & Chee, 2005), researchers found that obese workers were more likely to report lost productive time in the previous two weeks than workers who were fitter.

What’s causing it?

The root of the lost productivity seems to be connected to health. While at work, 40 percent of obese workers said they lost productivity due to health related reasons in the two weeks prior. Lost productivity here was defined as losing concentration, repeating a job, working more slowly than usual, feeling fatigued at work, or doing nothing at work. Ten percent of obese workers said they lost productivity because they missed at least one day of work in the previous two weeks for health reasons. In other words, the workers were less productive because they were missing work but also because they were at work and not able to function at their best.

A little silver lining to these research findings is that people who were simply overweight but not obese didn’t lose nearly as much productivity. They were nearly on par with people who were classified as being within normal weight.

In the study, researchers relied on people’s self-reported height, weight, and other information. It’s possible, they explain, that people under-reported their weight, but it’s just as possible that the subjects over-reported their height. The classifications of obese, overweight, and normal-weight used in the study came from a calculation of body mass index, which isn’t a perfect measurement. Someone who is technically overweight by BMI standards may in fact just be a larger person who is indeed quite healthy. But given the size of the study (more than 7,000 subjects) and the fact that the most important findings had to do with fully obese people rather than overweight people, the data hold up.

These numbers are both shocking and at the same time not really all that surprising. Obesity is a health issue. Workers who aren’t healthy aren’t as productive, on average, as those who are. Obese individuals have many more health problems than normal weight people. They have a higher instance of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea (and I’ve pointed out before on this site how losing even a little sleep every night is as bad as not sleeping at all for two days straight, in terms of performance and ability to focus).

In discussions of how to increase productivity, health is often overlooked or ignored all together. But it shouldn’t be. It can’t be. Emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing must be prerequisites to any attempt at increasing one’s personal productivity. And obesity is a health problem.

If you want to be your most productive self and increase your personal productivity, you need to be healthy. If you’re obese, you’re not healthy.

Let me make clear that I do not think these data should be used to discriminate against obese people in hiring or employment retention practices.

However, I do think an objective look at the numbers regarding productivity and obesity is worthwhile in part to highlight just how deep some of the problems related to being obese run.


Ricci, J. A., and Chee, E. (2005). Lost productive time associated with excess weight in the U.S. workforce. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 47(12): 1227-34.

Photo by Keoni Cabral, CC.


One thought on “Why Are Obese Workers Less Productive?

  1. Jill, love your articles and comments. We have developed a product that we believe has the inherent ability to boost human productivity, address some of the health concerns you address (obesity), and do a lot for both employees and employers in setting up an innovative approach to productivity. Let me know if you would like to discuss.


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