In Lost Productivity How to garner attention for your latest social study

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Opportunity cost, according to Wikipedia, is “the cost of something in terms of an opportunity forgone (and the benefits that could be received from that opportunity)” or “the most valuable forgone alternative.”

In the past decade, social scientists, politicians, policy makers and academics have stumbled upon a lucrative device: express opportunity cost in terms of “lost productivity.” When documenting how much our bad habits, pathologies and wasteful consumption is costing the U.S. economy, cite the figures in billions…lots of billions.

As far as I can make out, it’s an attempt to ensure that the study, survey, or legislative bill they’re attempting to foist upon the rest of us gains maximum publicity. The more the cost, the more important the findings.

Not surprisingly, many of these studies inevitably include a “recommendation” for more government spending in the area of our lives that the researchers have concluded we need to improve.

I don’t know how they’re doing their calculations and I don’t care. All I can tell you is that I sat down this weekend and googled the term “in lost productivity” together with “billion” and came up with thousands of hits. Then I added up all the numbers.

The total? More than $5.8 trillion in lost opportunity just for the U.S. And I can assure you that’s a non-exhaustive number because I stopped after the first 580 entries. I have a life and simply didn’t want to spend any more time in front of the computer on such a nice week-end.

$5.8 trillion is more than the combined 2005 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom, the world’s fourth and fifth largest economies, respectively. It also represents 67% of the $8.7 trillion U.S. National Debt.

More significantly, $5.8 trillion is 46% of the U.S.’s $12.5 trillion GDP in 2005 which suggests that a cessation of all our bad habits and illnesses could increase GDP by almost half. Yet an annual 3.8% increase in GDP is considered extraordinarily high by historical standards.

What set me off was an article I read Saturday morning on Inc.com which, yet again, included the words “in lost productivity” preceded by some wild figure in the billions of dollars. This one, a “new study” by researchers from no less an august institution than Brandeis University, claims that the U.S. is losing billions every year because – horrors of horrors! – businesses are not adapting to the needs of working parents.

Apparently, Americans are extremely upset that their work schedules don’t allow them to greet little Johnny and Susie when they get home from school. So much so that the resulting stress is causing workplace disruptions, affecting performance and employee well-being, thus creating “very toxic” employee attitudes…all to the tune of $300 billion per year.

Government spending for after-school care, community services and the like is, of course, “recommended“ by the researchers.

Now, I’m all for helping Moms and Dads ease the burden of parenting. But I do question the credibility of the $300 billion figure, which approximates the GDP of Saudi Arabia, the world’s 22nd largest economy. Asian economic powerhouse Indonesia is similarly sized.

Of course, compared with the U.S.’s $12.5 trillion GDP, $300 billion represents only 2.4%. When juxtaposed beside the larger number, 2.4% really doesn’t sound like all that much.

And if it was just the advocates for stressed-out parents who were claiming these remarkable losses, I’d be the first to jump on the bandwagon and join the call for whatever new government program the researchers were recommending.

But now every Tom, Dick and Harry with an agenda is running around claiming billions “in lost productivity” for their own pet cause. No study is complete without some billion-dollar figure. It’s become standard operating procedure.

Did you know that grieving for your loved ones costs U.S. employers $37.6 billion a year? Of course, that’s only for human loved ones; grieving for non-humans (i.e., pets) costs us an additional $2.4 billion a year.

March Madness – that’s basketball March Madness not some obscure disease for hat makers – costs us $3.8 billion annually and Sick-Building Syndrome another $15 billion.

Obesity? $21.7 billion a year. But that’s just in California.

Of course, there are many legitimate causes for improving our lives that claim “lost productivity” figures. No one can fault the various cancer groups, anti-smoking or anti-addiction associations for documenting the costs caused by the horrible diseases and habits that they selflessly and tirelessly advocate against. And, for the most part, I wouldn’t dream of questioning their sincerity.

But I can’t help thinking that wildly inflating figures isn’t going to convince anyone of anything. In fact, I believe that, ultimately, it is counterproductive. Learning every other day about another $20 billion lost as a result of yet one more bad habit creates a “so what?” reaction in the reader. Such commonality will eventually immunize us against focusing on the real, legitimate causes of lost productivity when they come up to the plate asking for our attention. You can’t cry wolf too many times.

So here’s the list from my Google search. Note that they apply only to the U.S. economy. The figures are for annual losses and exclude any claims due to one-time events, such as the Klez virus or a tornado in Wichita in 1983. I also tried to weed out studies that were duplicates of other studies. Some figures include other costs in addition to just “lost productivity,” such as medical. Each claim links to the article citing the accompanying figure.

And remember: the list is not complete!

Spam         $20 billion

Online shopping    $0.5 billion

March Madness    $3.8 billion

Smoking    $92 billion

Snoring     $88 billion

Lack of sleep    $50 billion

Chronic fatigue syndrome    $9 billion

Illiteracy    $225 billion

GERD    $104 billion

Diabetes    $40 billion

Caregiving to the elderly     $29 billion

Caring for those with Alzheimer’s    $36.5 billion   

Obesity (just in California)    $21.7 billion

Compulsive gambling    $40 billion

Untreated and mistreated mental illnesses    $105 billion

Mercury contamination before birth    $8.7 billion

Watching YouTube    $19 billion

Pain    $80 billion

Poor web designing    $100 billion

Fantasy Football    $15 billion

Acute intestinal infectious diseases    $23 billion

Worker interruptions    $588 billion

Employees wasting time on the job    $544 billion

Heart disease due to death and disability    $152 billion

World Cup watching in U.S.   $0.12 billion

Workplace grief over the death of loved ones (human)    $37.6 billion 

Workplace grief over the death of loved ones (non-human, i.e. pets)    $2.4 billion

Workplace grief, other (e.g., death of an acquaintance, family crisis or divorce)      $31.6 billion 

Roadway congestion    $100 billion

Cancers    $120 billion

Traffic crashes    $230 billion

Migraines    $13 billion

Asthma    $4.6 billion

Poor power quality and reliability $120 billion

Poor management planning and control    $880 billion

Workers who don’t feel "engaged" in their work    $350 billion

Domestic violence    $5 billion

Stress-related ailments    $100 billion

Sick-Building Syndrome    $15 billion

Seasonal influenza    $10 billion

Commuting to and from work    $45 billion

Skin disorders $10.2 billion

Employers who don’t adapt to the needs of working parents    $300 billion

Medical malpractice    $9 billion

Overactive bladder    $0.84 billion

Rape robbery, assault, murder and arson    $23 billion

Lymphatic Filariasis    $2 billion minimum

Methylmercury    $8.7 billion

Poor English skills among foreign-born residents    $75 billion

Occupational injury    $60 billion

Hepatitis-C    $75.5 billion

"Presenteeism" $150 billion 

Crime    $130 billion 

Spinal cord injury$2.6 billion

Repetitive motion injuries    $9 billion

Invasive weeds    $5 billion

Negativity in the workplace    $3 billion

Schizophrenia    $46 billion

Gunshot injuries    $19.4 billion

Richard Reid’s Shoe bomber incident    $9.5 billion

Adolescent childbearing    $29 Billion

Soil sodicity    $1 billion

Workplace accidents    $51.7 billion

Drunk driving injuries and fatalities    $46 billion

Ozone pollution on crop production    $2 billion

Unfilled IT jobs in Silicon Valley    $4 billion

Hangovers    $148 billion

December 19, 2006

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