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Study Reveals Declines in Health of American Workforce

Written by Heidi Schwartz. Posted in Facility Management, FacilityBlog, Safety, Topics

Tagged: , ,

Published on September 24, 2009 with No Comments

In the midst of the vigorous national health care debate, and at a time of heightened economic insecurity, new data on employers shows that the health of employed American workers is trending downward in a number of important areas. The State of Health in the American Workforce, a report released earlier this week by the Families and Work Institute (FWI), finds that only 28% of employees today report that their overall health is “excellent,” down from 34% just six years ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, men’s overall health has declined more rapidly than women’s. The report also sheds light on the relationship between an effective workplace and employee health, underlining the significant role that employers play beyond providing health insurance and wellness programs.

Among its many findings, the report reveals:

  • 41% of employees report experiencing three or more indicators of stress sometimes, often or very often;
  • One in three employees experiences one or more symptoms of clinical depression;
  • One in five employees has trouble falling asleep very often or fairly often and 31% awaken too early and have trouble falling back to sleep, also very often or fairly often; and
  • 21% are receiving treatment for high blood pressure and 14% are being treated for high cholesterol.

Furthermore, the report finds that nearly half of U.S. employees (49%) have not engaged in regular physical exercise in the last 30 days, including 22% not engaging in any rigorous physical exercise. And despite a push to stop smoking at the workplace, one in four smokes.

In terms of health care coverage, 24% of low-wage/low-income employees have no insurance from their employers or any other source, compared with only 5% of middle- and high-income employees. Low-wage/low-income employees are also much less likely to receive at least five paid sick days—only 46% do compared with 66% of middle- and high-wage and -income employees.

As to whether having an effective workplace makes a difference for employee health and well-being, the FWI data suggest that the answer is “yes”—and wage level and gender also influence in what way. For example, FWI finds that 38% of employees in workplaces that fall into the “high overall effectiveness” category (based on six measurable criteria that include economic security, autonomy, work-life fit) report “excellent overall health.” By contrast, only 19% of employees in workplaces that fall into the “low overall effectiveness” category report “excellent overall health.”

“Few would disagree that the health care path we are on represents an untenable route to increasing costs and diminishing returns,” said Ellen Galinsky, co-founder and president of FWI. ““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. 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.”

The new report is based on data from FWI’s 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW), the only study of its kind to provide 30+ year comparisons (from 1977 to 2008) of life on and off the job. The New State of Health in the American Workforce report focuses on 2002 and 2008 data.

Among the other noteworthy findings of the report:

Employees’ physical and mental health, stress levels, sleep quality, and energy levels all significantly impact important work outcomes of interest to employers, such as engagement, turnover intent, and job satisfaction. Thirty-five percent of employees who rate their current overall health as excellent are highly engaged in their jobs, compared with only 25%, 22%, and 23% of employees who rate their overall health as good, fair, or poor, respectively.

Despite the prevalence of employer health insurance programs, 8% of employees in fact have no health insurance. Nearly two-thirds (66%) of U.S employees are covered by health insurance offered by their employers. Of the balance, 26% choose to access health insurance from another source (e.g., a spouse’s employer), but 8% of employees have no health insurance from either their employer or from another source.

Income level makes a difference. Low-wage/low-income employees are less likely to have access to employer health insurance. They are also less likely to use it, if it is available, and they are less likely to be covered by another source. Sixty-six percent of low-wage/low-income employees have access to an employer health plan compared with 88% of middle- and high-wage and -income employees.

Employees who receive at least five paid days off per year for personal illness report significantly better work and health/well-being outcomes. Fifty-six percent of employees with at least five paid days off for personal illness report high job satisfaction compared to 49% with less than five days off. Within the five-plus day group, 71% report no signs of depression, versus 61% of those with less than five days off.

Having paid vacations bode well for personal health and well-being, as well as intent to stay in one’s job—and longer vacations offer greater benefits than shorter ones. Seventy-nine percent of employees have access to paid vacations with an average yearly time off of 16 days. However, 39% of employees don’t use all of their vacation time and 24% take five or fewer days for longest vacation. Eighty-two percent of employees with 13+ paid vacation days say they are “not at all likely to leave their jobs” compared to 68% with 6-12 vacation days.

Building upon other studies stemming from the 2008 NSCW data, FWI’s State of Health in the American Workforce report also explores various components of effective workplaces and what impact they have on employee health. Among the interesting findings: being treated with respect by managers and supervisors has a stronger effect on the mental health of low-wage/low-income employees than middle- or high-wage and -income employees, and men are more positively affected by having economic security in their jobs and a good fit between their work and personal or family lives, while women are more positively affected by being challenged in their jobs and by having autonomy.

“In the daily grind of our busy lives, it’s easy to forget the price we eventually pay when we fall short on important things like sleep, diet, or exercise,” said FWI Senior Research Associate and report co-author, Kerstin Aumann. “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. Our findings serve as a wake-up calls for employers and employees alike to take a closer look at how their organizations affect people’s health and well-being.

For a PDF of the report, send an e-mail to tfm@groupc.com with the words “Health and Workforce” in the subject line of your correspondence. To take a quiz to evaluate how well your work and life fit together, click this link.

About Heidi Schwartz

Heidi Schwartz

Schwartz joined Group C Media in April 1989 as managing editor of Today's Facility Manager (TFM) magazine (formerly Business Interiors) where she was subsequently promoted to editor/co-publisher of the monthly trade magazine for facility management professionals. In September 2012, she took over the newly created position of internet director for TFM's parent company, Group C Media, where she is charged with developing content and creating online strategies for TFM and its sister publication, Business Facilities. Schwartz can be reached at schwartz@groupc.com.

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