As Canadians face increasingly competing financial priorities while juggling busy lives at work and home, the overlap between financial worry, stress and employee health is becoming more intense.

In 2018, a study published in the U.S.-based Journal of Social Service Research found employees without paid sick leave are more prone to feel stressed about their short- and long-term finances. “Given worry’s known relationship to health, mental health and employment productivity, findings from our latest study are really disconcerting,” said LeaAnne DeRigne, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of the study.

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The implications of financial stress on health are staggering, says Dr. Beth Donaldson, a family physician and medical director at Copeman Healthcare Centre in Vancouver, noting employees often ignore their health concerns because they’re trying to make ends meet. “It’s not so much about losing one day at work. It’s about losing a whole career because of one diagnosis. The stress that would put on an employee financially is unbelievable.”


The number of American working adults between the ages of 18 and 64 sampled for the study

The average age of the study’s participants

The percentage of participants who worked full time

The percentage of participants who don’t have paid sick leave

Compared to workers with paid sick leave, respondents without this leave were 1.59 times more likely to report being very worried about normal monthly bills and were 1.55 times more likely to report being very worried about paying their rent, mortgage or other housing costs.

Source: Journal of Social Services Research, 2018.

But when considering the implications of employees coming to work when they’re sick and performing sub-optimally, the cost of providing sick leave benefits is likely lower than plan sponsors might think, said Patricia Stoddard Dare, a professor at Cleveland State University and the study’s other co-author.

Presenteeism, absenteeism

Continuing to work when sick — or presenteeism — is particularly challenging as it pertains to mental-health issues, says Dr. Donaldson, noting that doing so can lead to a worse prognosis because people aren’t giving their illness the attention or treatment required to properly heal. “Employers should honour sick days and encourage their employees to take them.”

On the absenteeism side, mental health is among the top three short- and long-term disability trends at Niagara Casinos, says Lindsay Daw, the organization’s disability services manager. She says the durations of absences are getting longer and it’s a challenge to get people back to work quickly.

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Absenteeism is also very costly, she adds. “Disability absences account for five per cent of our payroll, not including indirect costs such as loss of administration and productivity.”

While mental health is playing a large part in driving absence costs, so is the complexity and duration of employee absences, says Kim Siddall, vice-president and local practice leader at Aon. “And the financial stress side, especially when there’s a reduction in earnings over that absence period, isn’t going to help.”

In a previous study, DeRigne and other researchers had addressed how workers without paid sick leave reported higher levels of psychological distress. Participants without paid sick leave were 1.45 times more likely to report that their distress symptoms interfered substantially with their daily life, compared to workers with paid sick leave.

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According to Niagara Casinos’ employee assistance program, stress is the No. 1 reason employees are seeking support. And usage of its EAP’s financial support services doubled between 2017 to 2018, says Daw, noting 30 per cent of employees are currently participating in these services and the majority are doing so for debt issues.

The organization is now using a more integrative approach when it comes to absence management by considering the connections between physical, mental and financial health, says Daw. “Our financial wellness strategy includes a variety of programs and initiatives to keep our associates actively engaged in their health and finances.”

Cassandra Williamson-Hopp is a conference editor at Benefits Canada.