When you’re sick, your body feels bad, your head is fuzzy, and you may even be contagious. When you’re sick and you have to work, you feel miserable. But about four in 10 workers can’t take a day off for an illness or medical emergency without risking their day’s pay. And they bear much of the cost not in dollars but in mental and emotional strain.
A newly published study on the long-term psychological implications of paid sick leave, which is standard in many wealthy countries, reveals that, while the pressure to go to work sick is obviously linked to poorer physical health, the mind may suffer a parallel burden. When a lack of health protections clashes with a sudden illness or a family member’s medical crisis, workers can become exhausted, less productive at work, and more prone to negative temperament at work and at home. This low-grade malaise might not land one in the hospital, but, with more than 51 million workers nationwide denied a single paid sick day, the burden feeds into the country’s mental-health epidemic.
According to survey analysis by researchers at Cleveland State and Florida Atlantic Universities, workers without paid leave were more likely to report stress at work than those with paid leave, and those overstressed workers were some 45 percent more prone to feel that “distress interfered a lot with their life or activities.”
Surveys of workers across the social and income spectrum reveal a dangerous loop between physical and psychological ailments: A lack of basic job benefits like paid sick time could contribute to contagion and dipping productivity, perhaps even injury at hazardous worksites. When sickness inhibits work performance, economic and emotional instability follow, under threats of punishment from an unforgiving boss, or fear of losing that promotion.
The researchers note, that the downward spiral of ill health and mental stress, resulting in ”sad, nervous, restless, hopeless symptoms,” ironically can cost workers the opportunity to attain better jobs with benefits like paid leave. Such cumulative stressors could not only limit future social mobility but also deplete a struggling household’s emotional and financial well-being.
Typical health-related stressors affect home life as well—for example, when a sudden illness throws off a school schedule, or forces relatives to shoulder the burden at home, amid escalating household medical costs. Patricia Stoddard-Dare, professor of social work at Cleveland State University and co-author of the study, noted that when work performance suffers, “A worker without sick-leave benefits could be fired for this. It is enough to throw some families into poverty.” Basically, poor physical health begets poor mental health and vice versa, and our current workplace standards neglect both, while punishing workers for the consequences.