How Employers Are Rethinking Office Health
Offering the ability to take paid time off for any reason is obviously a cost that employers must shoulder. But the cumulative costs surrounding a general lack of access to sick leave could be even greater.
Does the American workforce deserve a break? While access to health care is its own complex issue in the U.S., some argue that workers of all kinds do not get enough time off to adequately address their health, and it might be costing the country billions of dollars. In response, companies are increasingly taking new approaches to sick days.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of March 2016, 64 percent of those employed in private industry had access to some level of paid leave in case of illness. However, that rate of access falls dramatically as wages do - only 27 percent of workers in the 10th percentile of the national average wage were covered by a paid sick leave policy.
"Greater access to paid sick leave results in numerous benefits."
Offering the ability to take paid time off for any reason is obviously a cost that employers must shoulder. But the cumulative costs surrounding a general lack of access to sick leave could cost the national economy much more. A well-publicized study surrounding the 2009 H1N1 flu virus outbreak (known as "Swine Flu") estimated that around seven million fewer people could have been infected if more Americans hadn't shown up for work after becoming ill. The drive to show up to work while sick with that particular virus may have led to some 1,500 additional deaths during the outbreak, one that was implicated in more than 3,400 fatalities in the U.S.
Slowing the spread of potentially fatal disease is only one of the major benefits that could stem from wider access to paid sick leave. Mental health disorders also prove exceptionally costly for companies and society at large. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry estimated depression - one of the most common mental health disorders in the U.S. - cost businesses approximately $78 billion in lost productivity because workers were unwilling or unable to take time off to cope and seek treatment.
The direct and indirect costs related to sick leave are spurring many employers and legislators to act. In 2016, New York became one of the first states to mandate certain types of paid sick leave, requiring employers to extend paid time off to workers who need to care for a child or family member with an illness. Many laws at the local, state and federal level are in the works that aim to expand access to paid time off in the public and private sector.
The Wall Street Journal reported that some well-known firms are even taking more bold steps regarding mental health days, which are often derided as unnecessary. Several executives at top companies have recently voiced public support for employees who need to take time off and seek treatment for depression, anxiety and similar disorders.
Rather than setting aside time explicitly for mental health, some businesses are making their paid vacation policies more flexible in order to encourage their use when needed. One company featured in the Journal's report offers unlimited time off and flexible working hours for all employees, provided they meet expectations and stay in close contact with colleagues. It even introduced office space for meditation and programs that promote self-care and mindfulness.
Our understanding of health is constantly evolving, making it hard to respond quickly to the latest advice on workplace policies. By getting a little creative, businesses large and small are taking steps toward fostering a healthier, happier workforce without breaking the bank.
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