Lose Weight, Gain 24 Days of Productivity

How important is your health to your ability to be productive? Let’s not beat around the bush: Health means everything. Health is so important that if you’re not healthy, it’s pointless to try and maximize your productivity until you are. If your body is not in good shape, your productivity levels can’t be either. And being healthy covers a lot of ground, including being not too fat.

Last week I wrote about studies on obesity and productivity, and I think the results are so important that I want to cover them in more detail here.

$42.29 Billion

In the U.S. and other countries where obesity has become an bonafide epidemic, we hear a lot about the economic costs of obesity. Economists and obesity researchers put the price in the billions, depending on what and how they count.

For example, lost productive time due to obese workers calling out sick more often than normal weight workers was estimated at $3.86 billion in 1998 (Wolf & Colditz). More recently in 2005, Ricci and Chen totaled the cost of both lost days of work and lost time at work for health-related reasons at $42.29 billion, and two-thirds of that is attributable to being less productive at work rather than missing a work day due to poor health.

The per-person cost, according to their data, is $1,627 on average per obese worker per year. Of course, normal-weight and overweight (but not obese) individuals also lose productive time to being sick or unwell. Their cost per person was estimated at $1,201 and $1,250, respectively. Notice that those numbers are much closer to one another, while the figure for an obese person about 35 percent higher.

Exactly how obesity affects productivity almost always circle back to larger health problems caused by the excess weight.

Obesity, Health Issues, Productive Time

In one study of more than 7,000 American workers (Ricci & Chee, 2005), researchers found that obese workers were significantly more likely to report lost productive time in the previous two weeks than workers who were fitter, and they lost productivity in two ways. First, they missed days of work due to health reasons, and second, their performance on the job was reduced for health reasons.

The researchers separate these two different types of lost productivity, calling them absenteeism and presenteeism, respectively. In the presenteeism scenario, lost productive time was described as

“the average amount of time between arriving at work and starting work on days when a worker is not feeling well and the average frequency of engaging in five specific work behaviors (i.e., losing concentration, repeating a job, working more slowly than usual, feeling fatigued at work, and doing nothing at work).” (p 1,228)

People who reported having lost productivity in the past two weeks lost on average 4.3 hours per week. That’s half a day’s work.

Those billions of dollars, those thousands of lost hours, they affect society, employers, and the industries in which obese workers are employed. But what about the individual? How is the obese person affected? It’s a conversation we don’t have. If you’re severely overweight, how badly is it hindering you from being productive and accomplishing the things you want to accomplish?

Lose Weight, Gain 24 Days

So let’s turn it around and reframe it.

If an obese person could manage to change his or her health conditions and get to a weight that didn’t come with so many health complications (and being merely overweight but not obese may be enough to do the trick) that person could potentially gain back half a day’s worth of productive time per week. Just think of what’s being left on the table. Four hours of productive time per week is huge. It’s two full work days per month. That’s 24 days per year.

Imagine that. Change this one thing, that, yes, is extremely hard to change, and a formerly obese person might be able to reclaim almost a month’s worth of productive time.


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.

Wolf, A. M., & Colditz G. A. (1998). Current estimates of the economic cost of obesity in the United States. Obesity Research, 6, 97–106.

Image by Antoine Gady, CC.


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