Nonprofits should be on the leading edge of equity issues. Yet far too many organizations are falling short when it comes to critical matters for employees: sick leave and health benefits. The health and wellness of our staff is vital to the execution of our mission work—and paid sick leave is a relatively low-cost, low-barrier way for nonprofits to support their staff.
1. Coming to work sick makes everyone sicker
When we create a system where staff cannot miss work without losing pay and putting their employment at risk, those staff come to work except in the most dire circumstances. And when they come to work sick, that cold, flu, or whatever virus they brought with them into close quarters with colleagues and clients, spreads like wildfire. Like dominos, other people start falling ill, and productivity (and morale) for the entire office starts to fall. This isn’t just about the people within your organization, either—overall, lack of paid sick leave contributes to worse flu seasons and broadly affects public health.
2. Lack of sick leave perpetuates inequalities
We cannot ignore the compounding impacts of structural inequality on our own staff members. This is particularly relevant to women and people of color, who are more likely to be unpaid caretakers—and more likely already to make less than their male and/or white counterparts. Staff who are caretaking for others at home not only need sick leave for their own illnesses, but to help them continue to care for children and elderly family members when they are ill, too. Organizations that do not provide paid sick leave add an additional burden to staff who are already managing oppressive social structures.
3. Sick leave contributes to financial security
It’s the punch line of many gallows-humor jokes that most people do not work at nonprofit organizations for the stellar pay. In addition to struggling to compete with for-profit pay scales, nonprofits face challenges offering health insurance, retirement benefits, and other components of an overall compensation package that position their employees to have financial security not only in the present, but in the future. The overhead myth contributes directly to these struggles and can ultimately make some nonprofits close their doors.
Of all the benefits a nonprofit might offer its employees, one of the lowest-barrier and lowest-risk benefits is paid sick leave. In many states, sick leave does not require being paid out when a staff person leaves, and thus does not accrue as a financial liability to the organization.
When an employee is so sick they have to miss work regardless of what paid leave is available, we leave them at risk of not being able to provide for their most basic needs. It should not be acceptable to any of us when an employee has to choose between staying home with the flu or paying their bills.
4. Paid sick leave shows we value our employees
Employees who are treated as humans with lives outside of work feel seen and valued, and as a result are more likely to stay at a particular organization. People are more productive when they can actually recover from illness rather than working through it, and paid sick leave means less people engaged in presenteeism, where being at your desk is valued over actual work accomplished.
Paid sick leave is a values statement: it says something about how an organization cares for its employees when it offers no benefits, not even what many consider to be the bare minimum of paid sick leave. Not offering basic benefits like this can negatively impact the reputation of your organization and makes it more difficult to recruit and retain quality staff who make your mission work happen.
5. We need to walk the walk
Every nonprofit needs people power to deliver on their mission. If our people are overburdened and financially vulnerable in the event of illness—an issue most of us deal with at least once a year—we can’t expect them to show up and do their best work. To make the most impact, our sector needs to advance a basic minimum of caring and stability for our most important resource: people.
Does your organization have a good sick leave policy, or do you think it falls short? Share your experience with us on Twitter.
Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.