The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s all the stuff that supposedly costs us billions in ‘lost productivity’

Via the The Atlantic, the Centers for Disease Control deliver some bad news: Heavy drinking is costing the U.S. economy a whopping $220 billion per year. Hangovers alone, they say, are depriving employers of $160 billion in workplace productivity.

That's shocking. Especially when you combine it with all the other things out there that are supposedly draining billions of dollars from U.S. productivity. Like insomnia. Or smoking. Or checking out the Internet.

In fact, when you add up all the different studies on lost workplace productivity over the years, it starts to seem like a miracle the United States even has a functioning economy. Let's see:

-- Obesity and other chronic health conditions cost the United States an estimated $153 billion per year in lost workplace productivity.

-- The fact that so many employees aren't engaged with their jobs costs U.S. employers a staggering $550 billion per year.

-- Parents stressed out about child care cost $300 billion per year in lost productivity.

-- Cigarette smoking takes $92 billion per year out of the workplace.

-- Then throw in insomnia, which costs another $63 billion per year.

-- Let's not forget excessive commuting, which costs employers $90 billion per year.

-- Workers who have to balance their jobs with care-giving for older relatives sap another $33.6 billion per year out of workplace productivity.

-- The mere fact that we have to change computer passwords at work so frequently costs about $16 billion per year. And e-mail spam hits us for another $21 billion.

-- Facebook? That's $28 billion per year in valuable workplace productivity drained away.

-- Fantasy football? $18.7 billion in productivity, gone.

-- Angry Birds? $1.5 billion.

-- Actually, let's just combine the last three. One survey found that all of our futzing around on the Internet at work costs employers... $134 billion per year.

-- Don't forget the Super Bowl, which costs employers about $1 billion per year (although this probably overlaps with the alcohol and fantasy football numbers).

-- The NCAA tournament costs $134 million.

-- One study in Australia found that coffee breaks were costing that nation's economy $11.4 billion per year in lost productivity. Since the United States has 14 times as many people, let's just multiply and assume that the coffee menace is costing America $161.7 billion in lost productivity.

Add it all up, and America's vices, distractions, and health problems are costing more than $1.8 trillion per year in lost workplace productivity. Clearly we're performing well below our potential!


...or at least that's one explanation. Another possibility is that much of this research on "lost productivity" is wildly overstated and we shouldn't put too much stock in it.

A few of the studies mentioned up above, like those looking at chronic health conditions or insomnia, do identify real health problems. But looking at lost productivity seems like an imprecise way to measure the toll.

And, of course, many of these estimates are outright silly. The idea that coffee breaks or or a little Internet browsing cost billions in lost productivity is highly questionable. As Jack Shafer pointed out back in 2010, many people are likely to waste time during the workday no matter what. The fact that they might do so by playing fantasy football rather than, say, taking a leisurely trip to the water cooler doesn't seem terribly important.

There's also the problem of overlap. Are "disengaged employees" more likely to browse Facebook endlessly? Should the cost of smoking be folded into the costs of chronic disease? Are long commutes contributing to the insomnia problem? It's impossible to tell.

That's because no one's ever done a rigorous analysis of all these supposed productivity-killers. The findings are usually just large numbers tossed around to draw attention to pet issues. A new study finding that spam or yawning or picking your nose costs billions of dollars in lost productivity might make for good headlines. But it rarely tells us anything useful about the economy.