Economic Fears Increase Unhealthy Behaviors Among Employed

Despite tight budgets, employers maintaining wellness programs

By Stephen Miller Nov 9, 2009

As the U.S. unemployment rate hits double digits for the first time since 1983 in what some are labeling a "jobless recovery," fears about job security are contributing to greater behavior-related health risks among employed but overstressed Americans, according to data analyzed by the not-for-profit Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI).

To better understand how employees change their lifestyles in response to employment uncertainty—and by extension, the likely impact on overall productivity—IBI used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) to analyze the relationship between 31,000 employed adults’ lifestyle risk factors and their industry’s quarterly unemployment rate. The focus of the analysis was on drinking, smoking and physical inactivity.

The Worse Things Get, the Worse We Behave

As the unemployment rate rises, employees who still have jobs tend to smoke more, drink more and exercise less, the analysis shows. For example, doubling the unemployment rate from 4.5 percent, the national average in April 2008, to April 2009’s rate of 8.9 percent increased the expected percentage of employees who smoke daily by 25 percent and who smoke occasionally by 18 percent. The share of non-exercisers increased by about 9 percent, and all other levels of weekly exercise decreased.

The greatest decline—15 percent—was among the number of employees who say they exercised at least eight hours per week. The percentage of moderate to heavy drinkers increased by 20 percent.

“Risky health behaviors such as heavy drinking, smoking or neglecting physical exercise significantly contribute to workplace absence and reduced productivity while on the job,” says Thomas Parry, IBI's president. “The effect harms employers and workers alike.”

For example, he explains, research in Sweden found that workers who smoke take about one-third more sick leave days per year than nonsmokers or former smokers (as reported in Does Smoking Increase Sick Leave?). In another study, lack of exercise was a factor in almost a day's worth of health-related presenteeism per year, while higher levels of smoking and drinking were associated with more than a day of additional presenteeism (as reported in The Relationship Between Modifiable Health Risk Factors and Medical Expenditures, Absenteeism, Short-Term Disability, and Presenteeism Among Employees at Novartis).

Sticking with Wellness Promotion

Separately, the results of an IBI survey of more than 400 U.S. employers, released in September 2009, suggest that employers remained more likely to increase their funding for health and productivity management programs (which include wellness promotion, disease management and return-to-work efforts) rather than cut back, despite the economic downturn:

68 percent of respondents providing any health and productivity initiatives said they plan to add resources to at least one program, without decreasing resources for any other program, over the next two years.

Only 4 percent expect to decrease program funding.

An additional 23 percent plan to hold firm on the resources devoted to health and productivity programs, while 5 percent are cutting some and increasing others.

“Regardless of what's driving their sustained support for health and productivity management, employers appear willing to step up their health promotion, disease management, and return-to-work efforts even in tough economic times” notes Parry. “It’s important that workforce health promotion be seen as a necessary and sound business strategy.”

Stephen Milleris an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Why Employee Well-Being Matters to Your Bottom Line, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2009

Poor Health Takes Financial Toll on Employees, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2009

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