Why aren’t health care workers healthy?
Why aren’t health care workers healthy?
Heart disease, asthma higher in HC industry
Health care workers aren’t actually very healthy. They have higher rates of heart disease and asthma than workers in all other sectors, and they are the most likely to have functional limitations or to ever have had cancer, according to an analysis of 1997-2007 data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).1
That track record for poor health has been longstanding. Four major occupations in the Healthcare and Social Assistance sector ranked among the top 10 unhealthiest in a previous analysis of NHIS data. Social workers ranked No. 1, psychologists were No. 4, nursing aides were No. 6 and licensed practical nurses ranked No. 10 out of 206 occupational groups.2
Those workers had more lost or restricted workdays, hospitalizations, physician visits, and chronic conditions and were more likely to have poor or fair health status.
The diminished health status of health care and social workers poses significant challenges for health care employers, says David J. Lee, PhD, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Miami (FL).
“We have an aging population that is going to place severe demands on this workforce sector in the coming years,” says Lee. “We need to do whatever we can to have workplace accommodations to extend the careers of individuals in this sector who wish to remain in the workforce. Otherwise we’re going to have serious shortages [of nurses and other health care workers].”
Nurses’ aides unhealthiest
A closer look at the data reveals some deep health disparities among health care workers as they reach middle age and beyond.3
Overall, health-diagnosing professions, which include physicians, dentists, veterinarians and podiatrists, are the healthiest, although at age 60 and above they have higher rates of coronary heart disease and hearing impairment than other health care workers.
By contrast, the health services workers, such as nurses’ aides, suffer from poor health. They are the poorest and least educated workers; one in four is “near poor” and one in 10 lives below the poverty line.
Obesity is their most striking problem. About 36% of the health service workers who are 45 to 59 years old have a BMI of 30 or above, and about 15% have a BMI of 35 or above. “These are epidemic numbers,” says Lee.
By age 60, about half of the health service workers (49%) have some functional limitation and have been diagnosed with hypertension (51%). “The group that is most vulnerable seems to be suffering disproportionately from a variety of [health problems],” he says.
Health assessing and treating occupations, including registered nurses, physician assistants, and other non-physician health professionals, also show signs of problems emerging as they age. Two-thirds (35%) have some functional limitation at age 60 and above, and 48% in that age range have hypertension.
HC jobs are stressful
The survey findings underscore the need for health care employers to promote wellness and healthy habits, such as better nutrition and exercise, Lee says.
As the U.S. population ages, the health care workforce also is projected to grow — and employers will need to retain their employees, Lee notes. “We have an aging population that is going to place severe demands on this workforce sector in the coming years,” he says. “We need to do whatever we can to have workplace accommodations to extend the careers of individuals in this sector who wish to remain in the workforce.”
Long work hours, shift work, stress and physical demands of the job may contribute to the higher rates of some health problems, Lee suggests. One in four workers (25%) in the Healthcare and Social Assistance sector reported having a functional limitation, such as walking a quarter-mile without special equipment. The industry average was 21.6%. Some 18.5% of the health care and social assistance workers reported having an emergency room visit in the past 12 months, compared to 17.6% overall.
There may be a silver lining to this unhealthy profile of health care workers, Lee says. Health care employers may provide accommodations to help their employees remain on the job, even as they develop chronic conditions, he says.
“The health care sector is a sector that, on average, can be much more accommodating to workers who have a disability than workers in another sector,” he says.
- Lee DJ, Davila EP, LeBlanc WG, et al. Morbidity and disability among workers 18 years and older in the Healthcare and Social Assistance sector, 1997–2007. Department of Health and Human Services (NIOSH) Publication No. 2012-161, October 2012.
- Lee DJ, Fleming LE, Gomez-Marin O, et al. Morbidity Ranking of U.S. Workers Employed in 206 Occupations: The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) 1986–1994. J Occup Environ Med 2006; 48:117–134.
- Lee DJ, Fleming LE, LeBlanc WG, et al. Health Status and Risk Indicator Trends of the Aging US Health Care Workforce. J Occup Environ Med 2012;54:497-503.
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