Revenge of the Recliner?

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Can an overdose of rest and recovery, even medically approved and insurance- or state-subsidized, be hazardous to your health? So claims an Australian study described by the Sydney Morning Herald:

The tendency towards a sedentary lifestyle after a workplace injury, and the loss of identity and social status produced by long-term worklessness, massively increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and suicide.

The risks associated with not working were higher than working in the most dangerous construction or forestry occupations and were equivalent to smoking multiple packets of cigarettes daily, contributing to elevated mortality rates.

''Not working for long periods of time is one of the greatest known risks to public health,'' the co-author of the report, Dr Robin Chase, said. ''It reduces life expectancy to a greater extent than cardiovascular disease. For example, suicide among young men out of work for more than six months increases 40-fold. It increases six-fold among the population more generally.'' Conversely, workers who return to work soon after suffering an injury have far better health. . . . 

Now there's a radical idea -- doing nothing can also have unintended consequences.

If the results of this study are confirmed elsewhere, what does this mean for disability, employment, retirement, and health care policy? Do our models for policy reflect it? Does it suggest less, more, or just different government action? On one hand, it suggests that legislated liberal disability benefits may backfire. On the other, it also implies that the employment marketplace does not reflect all the indirect long-term costs of prolonged joblessness.

(An aside on the medical view of relaxation: Studying the history of reclining chairs for my book, Our Own Devices, I discovered a whole album of 1950s doctors' prescriptions for them as tax-deductible "heart-saving" medical equipment.)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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