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New data show that employees who receive at least five paid days off per year for personal illness are healthier, and enjoy greater personal well-being. As our country looks at comprehensive health reform measures, we must consider policies that help employees stay healthy and engaged at work, even if these policies may seem, at first glance, unrelated to the provision of health care.

Sixty-three percent of American employees receive at least five paid days off per year for personal illness. However, low-wage/low-income employees are much less likely to receive at least five paid sick days—only 46% do compared with 66% of middle- and high-wage and -income employees. As employers and the government are considering to respond to a pandemic, such as an outbreak of H1N1, it makes complete sense to include the provision of paid sick days to care for employees and their dependents in their approach. It would certainly benefit families, who are now wondering, “who will watch my child if she or he is sick and I need to go to work?” Likewise, it would benefit co-workers, who don’t want to get ill and the public at large who don’t want to worry that the people who serve them in restaurants or in stores could make them sick.

The State of Health in the American Workforce, a report just released by the organization of which I am president, Families and Work Institute (FWI), finds that 56% of employees with at least five paid days off for personal illness report high job satisfaction compared to 49% with less than five days off.  Within the five-plus day group, 71% report no signs of depression, versus 61% of those with less than five days off.

Unfortunately, the report finds only 28% of employees today report that their overall health is “excellent,” down from 34% just six years ago.

The report also reveals:

√ 41% of employees report experiencing three or more indicators of stress sometimes, often or very often;

√ One in three employees experiences one or more symptoms of clinical depression; and

√ One in five employees has trouble falling asleep very often or fairly often and 31% awaken too early and have trouble falling back to sleep, also very often or fairly often.

√ 21% are receiving treatment for high blood pressure and 14% are being treated for high cholesterol.

Because two-thirds of workers are enrolled in health insurance from their employer, these findings must be considered in the health care reform debate. Employees’ physical and mental health, stress levels, sleep quality and energy levels all significantly impact important work outcomes of interest to employers, such as engagement, turnover intent and job satisfaction. FWI finds that 38% of employees in workplaces that fall into the “high overall effectiveness” category (based on six measurable criteria that include economic security, autonomy, and work-life fit) report “excellent overall health.” By contrast, only 19% of employees in workplaces that fall into the “low overall effectiveness” category report “excellent overall health.”

Families are under greater pressure: Women are now in the workforce in virtual equal numbers as men, a trend bolstered by the current recession that has cost more men their jobs than women. Four out of five couples are dual-earner couples today, and women in dual-earner couples contribute about 44% of the family income on average.

The percentage of employees experiencing some or a lot of work-life conflict has increased significantly from 34% in 1977 to 44% in 2008. Employees who report some or a lot of work-life conflict are less likely to experience positive health and well-being outcomes. They are also less likely to have positive work outcomes. Work life conflict can be costly for employers.

The good news is, providing most aspects of effective workplaces is low to no cost. Employers know traditional wellness programs can make a difference but are much less aware that effective workplaces should be considered part of promoting wellness. Examples of these policies include giving employees a say about how to do their jobs and providing flexible scheduling options.

Every workplace, small or large, can undertake efforts to treat employees with respect, give them some autonomy over how they do they jobs, help supervisors support employees to succeed in their jobs, and help supervisors and coworkers promote work-life fit.

In addition, organizations can promote wellness by monitoring overwork and providing and encouraging employees to take their vacations, because vacations, too, bode well for workers’ personal health and wellness.

Parents also need to look carefully at their jobs and work habits. Is your office environment, or the way you work, contributing to added stress and less well-being? I would guess that too many of us would say yes.

Both employers and employees can work together to pay attention to how they can promote better health at work, which ultimately will save money. Paid sick days are a crucial part of the equation.

The new FWI study is fully downloadable at www.familiesandwork.org.


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