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Even one additional hour of paid sick leave lowers workers’ risk of death. What employers need to know

September 7, 2022, 4:30 PM UTC
Adult woman sitting on floor and suffering from allergies or flu.
Paid sick leave gives employees the chance to prioritize their well-being, one expert says.
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How much paid sick leave your company offers may affect your life span, a new study suggests. 

The study, published last month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, compared a U.S. county’s death rate to the number of hours of sick leave employers were required by law to provide. It examined solely “external” mortality causes, such as suicide, between 1999 and 2019. The researchers found that even one additional hour of paid sick leave was associated with a lower risk of dying. For areas without paid sick leave, the study also predicted how mortality rates would change if a mandated paid leave policy was in place.

Forty hours of paid sick leave per year is standard for counties that have paid sick leave laws, though some offer as little as 20 and as many as 80 hours. The study found that if a 40-hour sick leave requirement was enacted in larger counties “constrained by preemption laws,” which prohibit local authorities from mandating paid sick leave, mortality risk may decrease by over 5%. The study notes that a lack of paid sick leave can increase the chances of unexpected job loss if people need time away from work, and therefore lead to mental health issues and an increased risk of suicide.  

The stress of not being able to prioritize physical and mental health compounded by limited access to health care for some can put people at a range of risks, says Douglas Wolf, author of the study and research professor at the Aging Studies Institute at Syracuse University. 

“Lots of people are employed in jobs where sick pay is not available and taking a day off because you’re too sick to work is very risky,” Wolf says. “The thought that you would lose your job if you’re too sick to work is itself a source of stress.” 

It’s the stress itself that can strain physical and mental health and lead to illnesses that could have otherwise been prevented. People with paid sick leave are better able to access treatment, including for various mental health issues associated with work or life stress, Wolf says, that can affect the county’s death rates more generally.

“The most likely policy change that would happen, in reality, is that a place in which there is no requirement for paid sick leave passes a law that requires employers to provide 40 hours per year,” Wolf says. “The change from zero to 40 is a big one, and would be predicted to have big consequences.”

In the era of quiet quitting—in which employees perform only to the extent they are compensated, it’s vital for employers to see their workers as “human beings” rather than “cogs in a machine” and put systems in place that help decrease burnout and stress, says Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness and bestselling author of Beyond Happiness.

“Employees have been asked to check their emotions at the door for years,” says Lim. “I see this study as one of the supporting data points to show that having paid time off is significant to our mental and physical health. The extra hour is more about giving permission for employees to care for their well-being than the hour itself,” Lim says. 

And paid sick leave has a ripple effect, granting not only time for employees to prioritize their health but their whole family unit, Wolf says.  

Ultimately, Lim says, it’s about changing the tone around taking sick leave. Once policies are in place, employers should model making use of the time off. 

“It’s not enough to just have paid time off if the culture forbids using it,” Lim says. 

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