Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health released a forward-looking white paper about paid leave and health. The study is part of a larger effort by the agency to focus more on the “relationships between employment stability, economic security and health.”
In a public health sense, this is great news. Why? Because your health has less to do with medical care or services offered within the health system. Instead, your health is influenced and shaped by employment status, education level, income, environment, nutrition, activity level, commute time, sleep, and employment benefits and work environment. In short, your health is the product of much more than just health care.
This last point on employment benefits and work environment is one that’s getting more attention, but still thought of in a somewhat narrow sense. Broader organizational policies and cultures often don’t figure into conversations about employee wellness. But they should. More research is showing how stress and relationship quality influence our health. So if you happen to work in a dysfunctional office with unspoken power dynamics and emotional pressure, chances are you’re feeling stressed as a result. Or, if you work in an open office environment where you constantly overhear negativity from your co-workers complaining about this or that. This creates stress too. And the more stress, the higher the likelihood it’s effecting your blood pressure and other markers of heart health.
Health matters for employers too. The bottom line: healthier employees are more productive employees. And there’s evidence to suggest that the benefits of health on productivity accumulate over time.
When it comes to employee health and wellness, access to paid leave is one issue influencing productivity. But it’s also not just about the employee. Paid leave is as much about other family members and relationships, especially when it comes to newborns or children. As the report states, “when parents have job-protected leave and can afford to spend more time with their new children, they generally do so.” This time between parent(s) and child is essential for optimal development and future health. When this type of nurturing relationship is absent, or a child grows up in a toxic stress environment, it negatively influences the child’s health and educational success.
However, the stark reality is many employees don’t have paid leave, whether for an illness or for family matters.
- Mothers with access to maternity leave tend to breastfeed and for longer periods of time.
- Parental leave is associated with higher vaccination rates and more timely health care visits for the child.
- Paid parental leave is associated with fewer infant deaths and better infant health.
- Paid sick days are associated with:
- quickly recovery from illness and fewer instances of working while sick.
- lower rates of occupational injuries.
- Not all employees have equitable access to paid sick and family leave in Minnesota, which varies by occupation, size of employer, education level, and income. Those with the lowest incomes have the least access to paid sick leave.
Despite the strong influence of employer leave policies and health, there are still no federal or state requirements in Minnesota for employers to provide paid sick or family leave. There is mounting evidence though to suggest that employers should think carefully about its leave policies. When such policies are flexible and consider family expectations and commitments, workers are happier and employers economically benefit.