Photo: jamelah e./flickr

Most of us know the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s why we’re told by teachers to keep our kids home from school when they’re sick, so they get better and they don’t get others sick as well. It’s why there’s increased focus on leading healthy lives, prevention and wellness.

However, the benefits of prevention seem to have been neglected in recent reports over the absenteeism in the workplace. Last week, Statistics Canada released a report showing that while public sector workers took more time off for sickness and family leave, most of this was explained by the higher rates of female, older and unionized workers in the public sector. Accounting for these differences explains 80 per cent of the gap in sick leave between public and private sectors, with the difference down to just 0.8 days.

Yesterday the Conference Board of Canada came out with a report calculating that absenteeism from work costs the Canadian economy $16.6 billion a year. This will be the first of three reports in a series on this issue from the Conference Board. But in the coverage of this report, I didn’t see any mention of the benefits of sick leave and of absenteeism, which is to prevent workers (and their families) from getting more sick. People get sick and sometimes work, or overwork, causes sickness and death.

So what’s the cost of illness in Canada?

There have been a number of recent studies done on the cost of mental illness for the Canadian economy. Just a year ago, the same Conference Board released a report that calculated the annual costs of just mental illness for the Canadian economy at over $20 billion.  Other analyses estimate the cost of mental illness much higher. Don Drummond from TD Bank estimated it at $33 billion a few years ago. A recent report for the Mental Health commission estimated costs of mental illness to be over $40 billion annually.

And what about the cost of other illnesses? The most recent comprehensive report I found from a quick search was a 15-year-old archived report from Health Canada, which calculated the Economic Burden of Illness in Canada at $159.4 billion for 1998, which was equivalent to 17 per cent of Canada’s economic output that year.

Unfortunately, the federal government hasn’t updated or published an updated version of this report, but if we assume ratios are similar, the economic burden of illness would work out to $300 billion in 2011 and $310 billion in 2012, based on 17 per cent of GDP. So the costs of sickness and illness at over $300 billion a year are almost 20 times the cost of absenteeism at $16.6 billion annually. Other calculations estimate the cost of “presenteeism” — when people come to work even when they’re too sick, stressed or distracted to be productive — to be 3 to 15 times the cost of absenteeism.

While the old adage about how “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” hasn’t been translated to metric terms, it looks like it still holds and quite accurately, with 16 ounces to the pound. A few days of sick and family leave really are worth it in preventing much higher costs of sickness and mental illness.

As pressures and time stress increases at work and home, it looks like we should have more time for sick and family leave, not less. With these types of payoffs, it’s worth it. While prevention certainly won’t end illness and the ratios may not be precise, it appears the old adage does apply: an ounce of sick leave can prevent a pound of illness.

Photo: jamelah e./flickr

Toby Sanger

Toby Sanger

Toby Sanger is the economist for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He focuses on labour, inequality, public services, public finances, fair taxes, environment and other issues of concern for CUPE...