Sick workers cost economies billions

Ill health could cost the world trillions of dollars in the coming decades, yet societies can help by facing up to the causes of the growing malaise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 1:19am

After 900 million people watched Germany win the World Cup Final, there was a simultaneous global tsunami - of sick leave.

As an average of 188 million fans worldwide watched each game, fatigue and alcohol took a heavy toll. The British government estimates a loss of 250 million working hours, costing Britain's economy about US$6.7 billion.

As 1.4 million Germans watched their team's victory and then celebrated deep into the night, the economic loss of German workers failing to roll into work on Monday was put at US$600 million.

Potential losses are large enough to bankrupt many of our region’s health care systems

The Actuarial Post estimated that the average employee worldwide took 1.8 days of sick leave during the World Cup. In China, e-commerce website Taobao was providing fake sick notes (including hospital chops) for 300 yuan (HK$377) each.

Sick leave may often be fake, but more often than not it is genuine, and, apart from the misery involved, it imposes a huge financial cost on all our economies.

And the price tag for ill health and premature death appears set to soar.

A recent World Economic Forum study estimated that the six key contributors to premature death and poor health - cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes, respiratory illness, cancer and mental ill health - would cost the global economy US$47 trillion in the two decades from 2010 to 2030.

Losses on this scale are not just a heavy burden on the sick, on firms and on governments - they are also large enough to bankrupt many of our region's health care systems.

As our societies become steadily older, with the population over 65 expected to double by 2050, so this arithmetic will get steadily worse, with a dwindling workforce carrying the cost of funding care for the elderly in their societies.

Most of the numbers we use to track the price of ill health badly underestimate the true cost. Tracking the cost of premature deaths or absenteeism might be reasonably accurate.

One can quickly estimate the price paid in China for the 650,000 premature deaths due to pollution each year, for example. The same is true of the cost of treating someone who suffers a heart attack or has diabetes.

But many of the costs of ill health are poorly tracked. Mental ill health is poorly measured. So too is "presenteeism" - the diminished productivity in the workplace of someone who is at work but debilitated by one form of sickness or another, ranging from headaches and back pain to insomnia and obesity.

Frequently, the costs of treatment and of carers for people in ill health are also not included.

How many dare to put a number on the damage to quality of life if one spends one's final years in ill health? And where is any calculation of the potentially productive savings and investment that are lost because they are diverted to medical treatment and care for the chronically sick?

However grim the picture looks, there are many things we can do to mitigate this appalling attrition of our global wealth.

First and foremost, societies need to face up to the four main causes of the growing malaise - poor diet, inadequate exercise, alcohol and tobacco.

And in nations like China, we must address the grave pollution problems that result in the loss of so many millions of lives.

We need to shift priorities in our health care systems, to prioritise "integrated care" that focuses on wellness and preventive care.

We also need to train millions more people to care for our elderly. For Hong Kong, that means taking a fresh look at how we recruit the hundreds of thousands of home helpers who come to the city from overseas.

Our education systems must be tailored and strengthened to enable those who are in work to work more productively - so that they can generate the wealth we will need to provide the support for our elderly communities.

Finally, we need to focus on driving growth in the global economy. The average 2 per cent growth that the world economy has seen for the past century needs to be sustained to generate the wealth we need to tackle these challenges.

Since 2005, growth has fallen to a bare 1 per cent worldwide. If it stays at that level, our children and their children face a grim future.

David Dodwell is the executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group