Report: Health of U.S. Workforce Declining

By SHRM Online staff Oct 1, 2009

Several key measures of U.S. employee health are declining, according to a report released by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) on Sept. 22, 2009. The report says employers and workers must pay attention to how they can promote better health and ultimately save money on health care costs.

Overall health has declined for all income levels, and the aging workforce does not explain the decline in employees’ health, according to The State of Health in the American Workforce.

FWI senior associate Kerstin Aumann and FWI co-founder and President Ellen Galinsky call the findings serious: pervasive sleep problems, rising stress levels, signs of clinical depression among one-third of the workforce, and men’s health deteriorating more than women’s health since 2002.

Employees’ physical and mental health, stress levels, sleep quality, and energy levels impact work-related outcomes significantly, the researchers point out in the report.

“In the daily grind of our busy lives,” Aumann observed in a news release, “it’s easy to forget the price we eventually pay when we fall short on important things like sleep, diet or exercise.”

The report is based on 2002 and 2008 data of life on and off the job from the FWI’s 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce.

In their research, Aumann and Galinsky found that:

  • 62 percent of employees are overweight or obese (having body mass indexes of more than 25 and 30, respectively).
  • 49 percent of employees had not participated in regular exercise in the past 30 days, and 22 percent had not participated in rigorous physical exercise in the past 30 days.
  • 41 percent of employees experience three or more indicators of stress sometimes, often or very often.
  • 28 percent of employees report their overall health as excellent vs. 34 percent in 2002.
  • 27 percent of employees have experienced sleep problems that affected their job performance in the past month.
  • 21 percent of employees receive treatment for high blood pressure; 14 percent are treated for high cholesterol.
  • One in three employees experiences one or more symptoms of clinical depression.
  • One in four employees smokes.

Employer Actions

Offering paid vacations, providing at least five paid days off per year for personal illness and contributing to employee health insurance are among employer actions that bode well for employee health and well-being, the report found.

Income level can affect workers’ enrollment in an employer health plan. Low-wage and low-income employees are less likely than others to have access to employer health insurance and are less likely to enroll if a plan is offered.

The report identifies six criteria for effective workplaces: employee autonomy; work/life fit; supervisor support; a climate of respect and trust; a feeling of economic security with the employer; and work that allows employees to use their skills and abilities, challenges them, and fosters learning.

“This new report is replete with evidence that several key measures of employee health are declining and that employer policies fostering employee engagement and satisfaction are also associated with better employee health,” Galinsky said in a news statement.

“The message is clear that beyond any reform measures on the table in Washington, it is urgent for employers and employees to pay attention to how they can promote better health, which ultimately will save money,” she added.

However, employers implementing any of the six criteria noted in the report should be aware that workplace demographics play a part in how employee health is impacted. For example, supervisor support has a better overall impact on the health of employees younger than 30 than it does on others, the report found.

Also, challenging jobs are more likely to have a negative impact on the physical and mental health of low-wage or low-income employees. Being treated with respect by managers and supervisors has a stronger positive impact on those workers’ mental health than on that of middle- or high-wage workers.

Being challenged in their job and having autonomy have a positive impact on their health among women, while men are affected positively by economic security and a good fit between work and personal life.

“This report demonstrates how our workplaces—where we often spend most of our waking hours—can help or hinder our personal well-being and health,” Aumann said. “Our findings serve as a wake-up call for employers and employees alike to take a closer look at how their organizations affect people’s health and well-being.”

The FWI site offers an online quiz to measure how effective a workplace is in impacting employee health.


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