In praise of sick days

It’s extremely common for articles about different health issues to cite some statistic about the drain on the economy that the illness causes, both in terms of direct expenditures for healthcare to deal with it, as well as the indirect costs of missed work time. It was this quote in The Ecologist that got me thinking about this, “The indirect costs [of obesity in the UK] are estimated to be in the region of £2.5 billion per year, including costs to the NHS [National Health Service] and costs to industry through sickness and absence” and typing “economic cost disease” into Google’s Scholar search turns up a slew of examples from the bowels of academia figuring the same way.

It really should go without saying that I wish people didn’t get sick and feel crummy or worse. Asthma and heart attacks–the world would be better off without them. But what about something like the common cold? While authors of “Productivity Losses Related to the Common Cold” in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine determined that “the economic cost of lost productivity due to the common cold approaches $25 billion, of which $16.6 billion is attributed to on-the-job productivity loss, $8 billion is attributed to absenteeism, and $230 million is attributed to caregiver absenteeism,” I’m left wondering if the slower work and absenteeism by those who had colds wasn’t something of a relief for them.

Here are some stats to consider. In the year 2000, the average working person in the U.S. spent 119 hours more at work-plus-commuting than they spent in 1989/1990. That represented a 5.7% increase in the average worker’s time spent getting to and from and being on the job. (Sources: State of Working America [pdf] and the Census and the Census [pdf] again, with some calculations done on their data.) But over that same decade, the average worker got an increase in their annual vacation time of only 3 hours. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey. I relied on their numbers for workers with 5 years of tenure at medium and large firms, meaning with 100 or more employees. The average at smaller firms is, of course, lower, but that data is more limited so I went with the bigger firms.)

(Adding insult to injury, the total number of added hours working+commuting in that decade, 119, was more than the average number of hours of vacation time allotted to working Americans, 110. Oh, and on top of that, lots of people don’t even take all the vacation that they have available to them.

Sometimes, people just get run down by working day-in-and-day-out, and even though a day spent at home with stuffy sinuses and a low-grade fever isn’t enjoyable, it could help a person get a breather from the stress and pressure of their job. Kind of like a smoke break. (That opens up another topic: my pet theory that smoking would be even worse for people, except that smokers get to take a few five-minute breaks through the day that other people don’t take, and that there’s a kind of sociability that seems to exist among smokers, and that these psychological benefits–working through mind-body connection magic–work as a little bit of a health benefit. Overall, the crap in the smoke is worse than the side benefits, but without those side benefits, the cancer rate and heart disease rate among smokers would be even higher than it is. Any medical researchers out there looking for a good study topic?)

In other words, a natural reaction to what the Families and Work Institute reported as “Over Work in America” [pdf].

Now, also recall that a good dose of vacation can improve productivity, and we get back on track with what I was thinking of all along. It’s like this:

  1. American workers are frequently overworked.
  2. Overworked workers are less productive.
  3. Sick days for minor ailments, like a cold, can function as replacements for vacations, in terms of giving workers a chance to have some down time.
  4. Conclusion: the overall economic impact of the common cold and other minor ailments might actually be positive. While workers lose some time and that might reduce economic activity a little, they’re likely to be more productive when they return to work and so make up for those losses. The net result just might be positive.

One comment

  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

    NPR provided an April Fool’s spoof that relies, in part, on a similar use of absurd measuring of “economic costs.” They ran a story on how New York City is considering mandating that all phones use one of four City-sanctioned ring-tones, in an effort to reduce “ring rage” (fights triggered by obnoxious ringtones). It was a great story and they had me going for a little while. Anyway, the guy defending the City’s new mandate claims that obnoxious ringtones result in $1.2 billion in lost economic activity. Yes, this was made up as part of the April Fool’s story but the fact remains that there are economists who would attempt to measure something like that and have their results published. When will someone research the extent to which sleep interferes with maximal economic growth? Just give everyone lots of methamphetamines and I bet they’d buy, buy, buy! And imagine how fast you could run the assembly line if everyone had access to all the coke they could snort? And once all the workers were hooked, you wouldn’t have to pay them one red cent–just promise to feed the monkey on their back and they’d be working away without complaint. 24-hour workplace; near-zero wages; surely, it’d be the best of all possible worlds–from the perspective of too many economists, I fear. (I don’t mean that there are any, or hardly any, economists who would really like this scenario if they took a moment to think about it. But there are plenty who’s work and assumptions fit perfectly with stuff like this without their realizing it.)