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A healthy economy means more sick workers

A man coughs.
A man coughs.
BSIP / Universal Images Group

If the economy is good and more people are employed, more people take sick days.

Economists have known about this trend for a while, and they typically provide two main reasons why. First, workers have an increased incentive to show up to work during a bad economy to avoid losing their jobs and falling into a bad job market. Second, a good economy's workforce might be less healthy since less healthy people can more easily find work during good times.

Now, a new study poses another explanation: better economies increase workloads. Those increased workloads encourage workers to go to work even when they're sick, and those sick employees then get their coworkers sick. Swiss economist Stefan Pichler developed a model to prove this idea, and his findings suggest that employers should encourage workers to stay home when they're sick.

The findings

To prove his explanation, Pichler's model looks at German health data and compares sick days caused by infectious versus noninfectious diseases. In theory, if the increase in sick days is caused by employees getting their coworkers sick during good economic times, then the cases of infectious diseases, instead of noninfectious diseases, should correlate with the rise.

Pichler's idea holds up: the number of sick days caused by infectious diseases goes up during good times, while the amount of sick days due to noninfectious diseases appears to have no relation to the state of the economy.

The finding is bad news during a good economy. It means people are more likely to get an infectious disease from their coworkers when everyone should be taking advantage of a better economy. It also indicates employers will have more sick and absent employees when workloads are expanding.

Limitations of the study

Pichler's model looks at Germany's company-based insurance schemes, which, as he notes, tend to be healthier and younger than the overall population. That makes it unclear how these results can be generalized to a broader, older population.

Pichler also acknowledges that his model and analysis don't fully address whether the workforce is less healthy during good economic times. It's still possible, then, that people with major health problems and those prone to sickness are more likely to find work during good times, and the overall sicker workforce could account for why the population seems to spread more infectious diseases and claim more sick days.

Now, these limitations don't negate Pichler's findings. But they are important caveats to keep in mind when analyzing his results.

Policy implications

The most obvious implication of the study: employers and governments should encourage employees to take off work when they're sick. That would obviously benefit the public by enabling a healthier population.

But there are other implications, too. As health economist Austin Frakt points out, this study provides yet another explanation as to why public health generally improves during recessions and, perhaps as a result, health-care spending falls during bad times.

In other words, keeping workers home when they're sick isn't just a matter of ensuring American workers are healthier. It's also about helping ensure health-care costs remain pushed down even after the economy recovers from the recession.