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More Sick Leave Can Keep People Healthier and Save Money, Studies Find

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By Melissa Hagstrom, contributor 

June 13, 2013 - Virtually every working professional is guilty of going to work when sick, exhausted, overly stressed or in pain. But when an employee does not have access to paid sick leave, or is discouraged from using it, the employer may be to blame for their staff reporting to work in less-than-perfect health.  

And that can lead to errors, injuries or the spread of disease that can affect other workers; in health care, it can also affect patients.

While there is currently no federal law mandating employers to provide paid sick leave, several recent studies and advocacy efforts are showing that workers without access to paid time off for illness can negatively impact their own welfare, public health and the employer’s bottom line.

Results from a new study published June 13 online in the American Journal of Public Health demonstrate that paid sick days (PSDs) reduced workplace flu infections by 5.86 percent and providing access to one or two specific “flu days” per year reduced on-the-job infections by 25.33 percent and 39.22 percent, respectively.

“Those who lack PSDs at work may be at higher risk for exposure owing to colleagues not staying home when ill. Presenteeism [going to work or school when ill] leads to further spread of illness by infectious people. Employees who lack PSDs may go to work ill, leading to the spread of infection at work,” the study’s authors explained.

In addition to reducing the spread of illness, paid sick days can also have a significant impact on occupational injuries.

Abay Asfaw, PhD, senior economics fellow with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explained that paid sick leave brings advantages for both workers and employers.

“We believed that the business value of paid sick leave might help employers to make informative decisions about offering or expanding paid sick leave programs to their employees,” Asfaw said about his study published in the September 2012 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. “Based on that general objective, we used National Health Interview Study data and we examined the association between availability of paid sick leave and the incidents of non-fatal occupational injuries.”

Asfaw and his colleagues’ hypothesis centered around the idea that employees feel pressure to work when sick or stressed for fear of losing income. Attending to sick family members, taking medications that cause drowsiness and high stress levels can all lead to injuries such as slipping and falling on the job and can comprise a worker’s ability to follow safety instructions.

“Our results showed that workers with access to paid sick leave were 28 percent less likely to be injured at the workplace compared to workers without sick leave,” Asfaw said.

The study found that health care support workers, defined as occupations within the nursing, psychiatric, home health and occupational and physical therapy fields, and other occupations with a high risk of injury, can particularly benefit from paid sick leave programs.

“The percentage of health care support workers with access to paid sick leave is only 59 percent compared to healthcare practitioners for example, who have 74 percent access,” Asfaw said, adding, “This is to say that providing paid sick leave to high risk occupations and industries will produce more results and reduce the incidence of workplace injuries.”

Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs and expert on paid sick days for the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF),  agreed that paid sick days are integrally important to public and individual health as well as to families’ economic security.

“There are reduced contagions within workplaces when people have access to paid sick days,” she said. “There is also more efficient use of health care resources and reduced emergency department usage, and there is a better chance of people getting the preventative health care and screenings that they need, which improves their health down the road and reduces costs.”

Shabo added that providing sick leave to health care workers is critically important for improving patient safety, reducing contagions in the workplace and preserving good health.

Action from employers is essential, according to Shabo. “Employers may say the right thing but if they are not actually securing the finances of their workers and guaranteeing that a person won’t be fired or retaliated against for taking a sick day, it’s kind of a vacuous pronouncement for workers to stay home if they are going to lose income or risk their job.”

Shabo and the NPWF are working with legislators and advocates at the federal, state and local level to promote the importance of paid sick days and pass paid sick day laws. There is currently proposed legislation underway called the Healthy Families Act (S.631) that would give workers the right to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to 56 hours a year. This time could be used for a worker to address their own health condition or preventative healthcare need or to care for a family member who is ill, and for victims of domestic violence to seek services.

“One of the most important things about health care workers and nurses in particular is that they are a very trusted voice in this debate and they are on the frontlines. Some of the best and most compelling stories about the need for paid sick days have come from school nurses who have talked about children coming to their office with fevers and other illnesses and begging them not to call their parents because they know that their parents do not have paid sick days and could be fired.”

“Providing paid sick leave can be a win–win solution for both employers and workers,” Asfaw concluded. “Employers can be benefited by providing paid sick leave because there would be a reduction in absenteeism and workers’ compensation payments as a result of reduced workplace injuries. And other studies also have shown that it can prevent the spread of contagious diseases.”

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