Not Having Paid Sick Leave Can Have Dire Mental Health Consequences

Erin Schumaker

Studies have shown that a lack of paid sick leave harms workers’ physical health, but it may also be linked to psychological distress that can ultimately take a toll on workers’ mental health and employers’ bottom lines, according to new research published this month.

“That distress interferes a lot with their life and activities,” Patricia Stoddard-Dare, study author and associate professor of social work at Cleveland State University, told HuffPost.

The study, which was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, analyzed data on 17,897 working adults from the 2015 National Health Interview Survey. That survey used the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, considered the gold standard for diagnosing psychological distress, to determine how individual workers were feeling.

“It’s asking in the past 30 days, how often do you feel so sad that nothing could cheer you up; nervous, restless or fidgety; hopeless or that everything was an effort,” explained LeaAnne DeRigne, study author and associate professor at Florida Atlantic University. 

The results: Workers without paid sick leave were 1.45 times more likely to report that distress interferes “a lot” with their lives and activities.

Workers need a safety net.

It’s a familiar enough scenario: You wake up in the middle of the night to a sick child, and immediately know your upcoming workday isn’t going to go as planned. If you’re a salaried worker, you might miss a meeting or another workplace obligation. If you’re non-salaried and don’t have paid sick leave, you could lose eight hours of pay.

DeRigne sites “stress over having to manage the conflicting responsibilities of work and health without some safety net” as a major factor in psychological distress for workers without paid sick leave.

Even worse, people who don’t have paid sick leave are typically less able to afford unpaid time off.

Indeed, while 72 percent of all working Americans had paid sick leave as of March 2017, only 36 percent of part-time workers did, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. There are also other disparities: Around 65 percent of black, white and Asian workers had paid sick leave, compared to only 47 percent of Hispanic workers, according to data from the National Health Interview Survey.

“The people who don’t have paid sick leave tend to be people who are Hispanic, less well-educated, low-income ― so it really is a social justice issue when you consider that these are already the workers who are disadvantaged in some way in our society,” Stoddard-Dare said.

(Alissa Scheller/HuffPost)

Will employers step up where the government has fallen short?

Although eight states and dozens of municipalities have passed paid sick leave laws in the United States, it’s still the only developed nation that doesn’t require employers to provide paid sick leave or maternity leave. 

Some U.S. small business owners argue that providing paid sick leave will hurt their bottom lines. Other opponents to paid sick leave think employees will abuse the benefit or that it’s counter to the American work ethic.

“There’s real stigma attached to taking sick time to care for yourself,” DeRigne said.

Should business owners look past that stigma, however, they’ll see the high cost of their employees’ physical and psychological distress. Major depressive disorder costs the United States $210.5 billion annually, with 50 percent of that falling to workplaces, according to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2015.

Since the new study analyzed psychological distress, which is more common that major depressive disorder, the cost of distressed employees could be even higher for businesses.

The researchers said that employers and human resource managers have shown interest in their findings and similar research regarding the potential payoffs for paid sick leave.

“What we’re hoping to see, and what we expect to see, is that more employers will voluntarily choose to offer paid sick leave benefits to their employees, because it’s in their financial best interest to do so,” Stoddard-Dare said. 

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.