Investing in Employee Well-Being

Paid sick leave can positively impact mental health, with employees with access to this benefit being 31-64% less likely to report experiencing depression or anxiety daily.

Illustration of man watering brain growing happy smiling face seedling plant. Employee wellness concept

Read Time: 3 minutes


According to a 2010 study, if an employee in Norway called out of work for 50 days while undergoing cancer treatment, they received full pay for the entire period. In Australia, an employee who called out for 5 days while suffering from the flu still received full pay for the time away. In the United States, however, an employee calling out sick for just one day frequently found herself with no compensation at all. Three years later, the American Public Health Association issued a policy statement advocating for paid sick leave policies, effectively declaring it a public health issue.

Paid sick leave can have significant implications for employees’ physical health. Employees without sick leave are more likely to delay seeking medical care, meaning they will continue going to work while sick. This can worsen their health and lead to more complicated conditions and steeper health care costs. Indeed, having access to paid sick leave is associated with fewer visits to the emergency department and lower risk of dying from heart disease.

The benefit might also affect psychological well-being. Workers without paid sick leave are more likely to worry over their financials and to report feelings of psychological distress. And according to a recent study by Abay Asfaw, this group is also more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

Asfaw examined interviews with more than 5,500 employees performed in 2019 and 2020. He discovered that 70% of these workers had access to paid sick leave. But certain demographic groups were less likely to have the benefit. This included Hispanic workers, widowed/divorced/separated workers, workers under 30, and workers over 64. In contrast, those who did have access to paid sick leave were more likely to be college educated, have a family income above the poverty level, and have health insurance.

Unfortunately, the U.S. continues to lag behind peer nations: paid sick leave is still not guaranteed by law.

Initially, the difference in reported mental health between these groups was small: those who had paid sick leave were slightly less likely to report daily or weekly feelings of depression and/or anxiety. But Asfaw had the unique opportunity to analyze this question over time. From one year to the next, some employees lost and some gained a paid sick leave benefit, which allowed him to pinpoint how access to paid sick leave impacted individual workers. He discovered that paid sick leave was significantly associated with improved mental health among this group. Employees with access to paid sick leave were 31-64% less likely to report experiencing depression and/or anxiety daily.

Asfaw’s study adds to a body of research that underscores the importance of paid sick leave for employees. Having access to this benefit means that employees can take the time to care for both themselves and their family members. They’re more likely to go to primary care appointments, boosting preventive practices. And they’re less likely to spread illness at work, a clear social benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, the U.S. continues to lag behind peer nations: paid sick leave is still not guaranteed by law. Benefit decisions have been left to the states, and currently only 15 states and Washington D.C. have enacted paid sick leave laws.

Senator Bernie Sanders submitted the Healthy Families Act to Congress in 2023, a national policy that requires giving employees 7 paid sick days each year. The passage of this act would ensure universal access to paid sick leave, supporting the health and well-being of workers across the U.S.

Photo via Getty Images