Can Lack of Access to Sick Leave Be Dangerous to Your Health?

The benefits of offering paid sick leave can outweigh the costs, even for small companies and especially for employers whose workplaces have a high risk for employee injuries, experts say.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012
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Battling the abuse -- or supposed abuse -- of sick leave has been an HR challenge for decades, but now a report suggests that not having a sick leave policy can be damaging to both employee health and organizational productivity.

The report, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health indicates that workers with paid sick leave are 28 percent less likely to be the victims of non-fatal workplace injuries than those without such benefits available to them. Those in high-risk fields (e.g. construction, manufacturing) realize the greatest benefit.

Researchers reviewed national survey data from 2005-2008 on 38,000 private sector employees and found that healthcare workers and technicians without paid sick leave were 18 percent more likely to suffer a non-fatal workplace injury, and construction workers without paid sick leave were 21 percent more likely to suffer a non-fatal workplace injury.

The study, says Abay Asfaw, a senior fellow in the NIOSH Office of the Director and a co-author of the study, focused on private-sector employees because such a high percentage of public-sector employees have access to sick leave. "The study was to convince employers that providing paid sick leave would be a benefit in some ways to maximize profit," he says. "Overall, the motivation was to convince employers that providing paid sick leave might help to reduce the incidence of workplace injury.

"Our main hypothesis is that there is often pressure to work while sick, for fear of losing income," says Asfaw. Those who make these decisions, he says, may take medicine that causes drowsiness, might experience sleep problems or might be fatigued. "All of these factors might affect the ability to these workers to follow instructions, to concentrate and as a result they are more likely to be injured," he notes.

In addition to the impact on workplace injury, the study notes that paid sick leave can also decrease the spread of contagious diseases to co-workers, reducing exponentially the potential impact of lost work time.

However, according to the study, despite the benefits of offering sick leave (for both employee and employer), 43 percent of private-sector workers in the United States, reported they did not have access to sick leave.

Watch the Numbers

Attorney Teresa Jakubowski says these numbers can be misleading.

Jakubowski, a partner with Barnes & Thornburg in Washington, where she practices labor and employment law, says that, "according to the most recent statistics on employee benefits available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of full-time workers in private industry do have access to paid sick leave."

Paid sick leave was available to 61 percent of private-industry workers and 89 percent of state and local government workers, according to the BLS, as of March 2009. Access ranges from 84 percent for management and professional occupations to 42 percent for service workers. Private-industry workers in companies with more than 500 employees had the greatest access to paid sick leave, at 80 percent, compared with employees at smaller companies (those with fewer than 100 employees), at 52 percent. Full-time employees, as Jakubowski indicates, have greater access -- at 73 percent -- than part-time employees at 26 percent.

"I think many private employers do recognize the value of paid sick leave," says Jakubowski, particularly if they are working in potentially dangerous environments. She acknowledges that the paid sick leave situation in certain types of employment environments can vary widely. Across the board, she says, there is likely to be less sick leave coverage provided for employees in part-time positions. The same is likely true, she says, of temporary positions. Construction-related work, particularly, is prone to these types of schedules, she says. "Employers may just pick up people for a particular day or two and there is no guarantee of having employment beyond that. I think those are the kinds of positions where, quite frankly, there's a higher incidence of paid leave not being provided."

They are also the types of positions where injury is more likely. Of course, minimizing on-the-job injury goes beyond sick leave policies.

Beyond Sick Leave

Even beyond sick leave policies, says Jakubowski, employers have an obligation to ensure that employees are capable of performing their job duties. The risk is less for office workers, she notes, than for those in construction, manufacturing or for those who drive vehicles as part of their jobs -- e.g. bus drivers, truck drivers. "Just because an employer offers paid leave doesn't necessarily mean that an employee is going to use it when they need to use it," she notes. "You have to constantly be vigilant to ensure that your employees are capable of performing the job functions that you require them to do."

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In fact, there is the potential for liability, she says. "If they show up obviously with severe impairment, whether it's that they visually appear dizzy or unstable on their feet and they continue to work, particularly if that causes an injury to other people, then it's going to be a heightened risk," she says. That is true whether the organization offers paid sick leave or not.

The motivation behind providing sick leave is often unrelated to protecting employees from injuries, of course. As Lynda Zugec, founder of The Workforce Consultants in the Toronto area, notes: "From an organizational standpoint, providing sick leave can attract and retain qualified employees. Organizations that have a sick-leave policy are viewed as more favorable and preferable than those who do not."

Those that do, though, she says, often benefit in other ways. "Sick leave has the potential to actually reduce a company's financial burden," says Zugec. "Productivity has been proven to increase and employees can work more effectively when they have the peace of mind that comes along with a sick-leave policy."


The bottom line: the benefits of offering paid sick leave can outweigh the costs, even for small employers and especially for employers whose workplaces are subject to the potential for employee injury.

"When a sick-leave policy is not offered, employees come to work unhealthy, can spread illnesses to others, and often end up extending their illness, which further hampers productivity," says Zugec. "A sick-leave policy has the potential to improve employee health, job satisfaction and loyalty."

Asfaw clearly agrees. Based on the results of their study, says Asfaw: "Our recommendation is that providing paid sick leave can be a win-win solution for both employers and workers." For employers, he says, the chances of workplace injury will go down, particularly in high-risk industries such as construction, healthcare and manufacturing. 

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