Category Archives: health

Making Workplace Meditation Work

Mindfulness appears to be alive and well in Fort Collins, Colo. Or at the Fort Collins Housing Authority anyway.

139980668-- meditationJust before the holidays, I came across this release about the FCHA completing a month-long mindfulness program for its staff.  Seems the organization’s top leaders took its annual wellness survey seriously when a common complaint came back suggesting improvements in work/life balance and health and general well-being were needed.

In the words of FCHA Chief Executive Officer Julie Brewen: “We are committed to implementing new programs for the health and well-being of our staff.”

In an industry that deals with tough issues such as poverty, homelessness and families in crisis, she says, the program was a step in the right direction. The program consisted of daily, hour-long sessions during work hours that blended presentations, group discussion and meditation practice.

The results? According to Brewen, lowered stress and depression, and an increase in work/life balance.

What’s even more impressive is what she shared with me just recently, that her organization’s commitment to this lives on, with additional mindfulness training planned for this year, and some added questionnaires and wellness-survey questions designed to keep a close eye on the workplace well-being meter.

“Many of the participants [intend] to continue [their] meditation and mindfulness exercises” into the rest of 2015, she says.

Of course, putting this kind of program together takes a huge and collective commitment to the idea and the practice. It needs to come from the top and be ingrained into the culture, as this column a year ago (to the month) by our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett, suggests.

Her column also suggests the concept could use some booster shots in the business community. “In my experience,” she writes, “most employers pay scant attention to stress and defer to employee-assistance programs as check-the-box solutions — despite poor utilization of this service.”

So what’s it going to take for the Fort Collins approach to become the approach of most? Perhaps when employers start acknowledging they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, even as it relates to your brand and reputation. As Harnett writes:

” … mind-body curriculums will please a growing portion of your employee population and improve your workers’ perceptions of the workplace culture. And that may be an employer’s greatest consideration of all.”

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Shaking the Mental Health Stigma

mental healthJust a few short weeks from now, our March issue will see the light of day. In it, you’ll find the second installment of a three-part series on employee health.

This Carol Patton-penned feature looks at how more employers are “recognizing the destructive footprint of depression on their workforce and bottom line, and are taking direct aim at the illness.”

There’s no doubt that many companies have made great strides in identifying the signs and understanding the insidious impact of this illness, and are acting to help employees affected by depression as well as those dealing with other mental health issues.

But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a ways to go.

The Disability Management Employer Coalition’s just-released 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey posed 42 online questions to 314 employers of various sizes between July and August of last year. The results suggest the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace still very much exists, to say the least.

For example, respondents were asked what level of, or change in, stigma associated with “having a psychological/psychiatric problem” they have witnessed in the last two years. (DMEC conducts its Behavioral Risk Survey on a biennial basis.)

Overall, 41.4 percent of respondents said the stigma remained the same, with 25.1 percent indicating that the stigma has actually decreased in that time.

Another 24.2 percent, however, said the stigma has increased since 2012. And, consider that just 7.6 percent reported feeling the same way two years ago.

Troubling as some of these figures are, the survey does show signs that management awareness and acceptance of behavioral health issues is growing, though. When asked how their upper management’s opinion regarding the need to review behavioral health issues has changed over the past two years, for instance, 36.8 percent of respondents replied, “yes, it has become more open” in that time. In 2012, 25 percent of respondents said the same.

In addition, 32.8 percent of survey participants said their organizations screen for underlying psychological or psychosocial issues, marking a slight, 3.2 percent increase from 2012.

In a statement detailing some of the survey’s findings, DMEC Executive Director Terri L. Rhodes described employers’ increased adoption of screening and other tools to identify and address mental health conditions as “heartening.”

But, she adds, “there is much more to be done to reduce the stigma still attached to these illnesses and create a consistently collaborative approach to treating them.”

(A full report on the 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey is available by contacting John Jordan at jjordan@principor.com or 202.595.9008.)

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The Challenges of Walking While You Work

Good news for those of you who believe that treadmills and office desks go together like peanuts and chewing gum!

New academic research based on a 12-week study of overweight employees by an Oregon State University researcher found that the increase in physical activity from using a treadmill desk was small and did not help workers meet public health guidelines for daily exercise.

And while their positive effects may be small, introducing treadmill desks in the workplace also can pose big logistical challenges that may not make such a program feasible for many companies, said John M. Schuna, Jr., an assistant professor of exercise and sports science in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU.

In a small study of treadmill desk use by overweight and obese office workers, Schuna and his colleagues found that workers who used the desks increased their average number of daily steps by more than 1,000, but did not record any significant weight loss or changes in Body Mass Index after 12 weeks. The employees only used the treadmills about half the time they were asked to, averaging one session and 45 minutes a day on the machines.

“Treadmill desks aren’t an effective replacement for regular exercise, and the benefits of the desks may not justify the cost and other challenges that come with implementing them,” Schuna said.

His findings were published recently in the “Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.” Co-authors include Damon L. Swift of East Carolina University and several researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The research was supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana.

Interestingly enough, researchers faced several challenges with the study, including difficulty recruiting employees to participate. Initially, more than 700 employees of the company were targeted for recruitment, with roughly 10 percent of them expressing interest in participating. Some of those employees were deemed ineligible for the study for a variety of reasons, while others did not receive approval from a supervisor.

They also found work considerations often kept employees from using the desks, even though the company had approved and encouraged employees to participate in the program. Employees shared the treadmill desks, which required scheduling the time they would be using them.

Schuna said the findings from this study indicate that future research on exercise in the workplace should focus on interventions that avoid some of the pitfalls that come with treadmill desks.

“We need to identify some form of physical activity that can be done simply and at a low cost in an office setting,” he said.

Preferably while sitting.

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Another City Tackles Paid Sick Days

The Philadelphia City Council today is debating a hot-button topic with potential HR ramifications that may reach far beyond the city’s limits: whether to enact a paid sick days bill into law.

If passed, the City of Brotherly Love will join San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York City, Jersey City, Newark and the state of Connecticut as municipalities with such laws on the books.

While the debate around such laws has been growing over the years, momentum for its passage increased after President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address, which called for cities to ensure paid sick days for millions of Americans. The president is also urging Congress to require companies to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave a year.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, San Francisco became the first locality in the nation to guarantee access to earned paid sick days in 2006.

In 2008, the District of Columbia and Milwaukee passed paid sick days standards that included paid “safe” days for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. In 2011, the Connecticut legislature became the first in the nation to pass a statewide paid sick days law, and Seattle became the fourth city, with Portland, Ore., and New York City joining their ranks in 2013.

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The Hanging Gardens of the Future

greenIf you’ve always wished you could have visited the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,  perhaps you’ll take heart from “Organic Grid+,” the winner of an architectural contest to design the “Workplace of the Future.”

Designed by London-based architects Sean Cassidy and Joe Wilson, Organic Grid+ is intended to meld together innovations such as green walls, open-plan offices and vertical greenhouses into a soothing, healthy, light-filled space. The proposal would entail attaching  multistory vertical greenhouses — or “sky gardens” — onto existing skyscrapers in which employees could both work and … harvest fresh vegetables for their lunch. As they write:

… Sky gardens provide fresh food for employees to enjoy, as well as natural cooling and acoustic buffering throughout the building. The intrusion of green spaces into the structure itself also generates a more welcoming and overall pleasant atmosphere in which to work, ultimately boosting morale for those inside.

Naturally, there are potential downsides: John Metcalfe of The Atlantic’s CityLab blog writes that “What’s worse than chatty coworkers interrupting your flow? How about a dude harvesting zucchini from a vertical garden falling and crashing through your desk in a hollering heap?” Putting aside the snark, however, innovations such as green walls, office gardens  and workplace farmers markets are becoming increasingly popular — although still rare — as a way to not only provide relief from the drab concrete and industrial carpeting of the traditional office space but encourage healthier living by employees. Who knows: in the future maybe we’ll be bringing gardening gloves to work in addition to our smartphones and travel mugs.

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Bullish on Wellness

Good news out of the Society for Human Resource Management yesterday for those looking to move the needle on greater employee buy-in for wellness.

174186054According to the association’s Strategic Benefits survey, more than one-half (53 percent) of the 380 responding employers said employee participation in wellness programs climbed last year. This follows similar findings in 2013 and 2012, when 56 percent and 54 percent of the respondents, respectively, reported a jump.

What’s more, more than two-thirds of the employers that offered wellness indicated that their initiatives were either “somewhat effective” or “very effective” in reducing the costs of healthcare in 2014 (72 percent), 2013 (71 percent) and 2012 (68 percent).

The SHRM study also found two-thirds (67 percent) of organizations with such initiatives in place offered incentives or rewards aimed at increasing participation, representing an upward trend from 2013 (56 percent) and 2012 (57 percent).

Of those organizations offering wellness incentives or rewards, 85 percent said these incentives were “somewhat” or “very” effective in increasing employee participation.

The study also found the number of organizations with wellness programs was on the rise in 2014, with about three-quarters (76 percent) of the respondents saying they offered some type of wellness program to employees last year, an increase from 70 percent in 2012.

In all, these findings paint a fairly positive picture as far as wellness is concerned. But one weak link uncovered in the SHRM research, not surprisingly, continues to be on the measurement front. Few companies, SHRM reports, are actually measuring the ROI or cost-savings analyses of their efforts (18 percent and 30 percent, respectively).

Nine in 10 (90 percent) of the respondents whose organizations had wellness initiatives said their organizations would increase their investments in its wellness initiatives if they could better quantify their impact.

(Some critics would argue that, were they to measure the effectiveness of these programs, they might not be nearly so bullish.)

The SHRM research also looked at flexible-work arrangements, finding that about one-half (52 percent) of organizations provided employees with the option to use FWAs, such as teleworking. Of those offering employees such options, about one-third (31 percent) said participation in these initiatives increased last year, compared to the year before. Just 1 percent indicated employee participation had decreased.

Though one in two employers provided employees with the option to use flexible-work arrangements, the survey found only one-third (33 percent) reporting that the majority of their employees were actually allowed to use them.

Something I would think employers will need to address, sooner rather than later, considering Gen Yers (big proponents of flextime) are projected to represent the majority of the workforce in the not-too-distant future.

 

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Starting the Ultimate Conversation

Last holiday season, I posted a piece on this blog about what employers should do when employees come to them with news that 465319021 -- difficult conversationthey are dying. It featured advice from Lynne Curry, president of Anchorage, Alaska-based The Growth Co., who stressed the importance — for employers, and HR and benefits professionals — of going over plans and benefits with any and all employees who come to them with such difficult information.

Recently, it seems, The Dow Chemical Co. took that discussion many steps further by partnering with a company called The Conversation Project. Founded by journalist Ellen Goodman, the project offers a step-by-step guide, called the Conversation Starter Kit, designed to carry managers, HR professionals, family members and loved ones through what I would call the ultimate conversation.

The idea to offer such a project and kit to her employees came to Dr. Cathy Baase, global director of health services at Midland, Mich.-based Dow, when she heard Goodman speak at a health conference about her own experiences as her mother’s caregiver and healthcare decision-maker for many years, and her resulting mission to change the way Americans talk about and deal with death.

As Goodman shared then, had she had conversations with her mother before dementia impaired her ability to share her desires, she might have felt more secure in making the decisions she faced.

Dr. Baase was driven by her own experiences as well, not only in seeing employees through this difficult time, but having engaged her own family to talk early, and often, about their mother’s chronic illness. She and her older sister, a nurse, were the forces behind the bi-weekly and sometimes weekly conference calls they would have with their two younger brothers, committed to staying on the same page about their mother’s care until she passed.

“Having these conversations actually made us closer as a family,” says Dr. Baase. “We knew how things were going and what to expect in the future, and we talked through everything until we came to an agreement. It did make things easier — although these things are never completely easy.”

With the help of The Conversation Project, Dow has begun a focused effort to educate employees and retirees about the merits of getting it all out in the open. Information about the project is now on the Dow internal website and has been distributed at retiree-health fairs.

The company also sponsored two webinars for its employees, retirees and staff, and its magazine, Dow Friends, which reaches more than 50,000 retirees in the United States and Canada, featured an article on the effort. It also shot a video recently for use in meetings and promotions, and plans are under way to hold role-playing events to help people break the ice and initiate these conversations at home.

“If we can help Dow employees be less stressed, more comforted and at peace,” says Dr. Baase, “then that leads to less distraction and a break from worry. … We have a history of confronting challenging problems that affect our society, and end-of-life care is an extension of that.”

Mega kudos to Dow, Dr. Baase and the project.

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Eliminating Silos in Health and Safety

Few of us need to be sold on the merits of greater collaboration. But if there were any doubts about what it’s able to bring to the areas of health and safety, Dr. Casey Chosewood put them to rest yesterday morning during his opening keynote speech at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® in Las Vegas.

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Dr. Casey Chosewood, speaking at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference on Wednesday.

“Too many organizations today still have silos [that] are unconnected,” said Chosewood, chief medical officer and director of the Office for Total Worker Health Coordination and Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Centers for Disease Control). “But that has to change. We have to put everything under one umbrella and take a more integrated approach.”

Remarkable things can happen when each of the components talk to one another, align their goals, understand the financial challenges of others and work on finding solutions, Chosewood told the packed room of attendees.

Of course, in the world of business, the elimination of silos, as a concept, comes up a lot. But it seems to be an especially powerful idea when it’s applied to safety and health.

Early in his talk, Chosewood took a few minutes to touch on the Ebola outbreak, which is also the subject of Carol Harnett’s Benefits Column posted earlier this week.

“I’m frequently asked if the CDC has a handle on the problem,” Chosewood said, “and that’s a fair question.”

As of today, he explained, there have been eight cases of Ebola in the United States, compared to 14,000 known cases in West Africa (a figure he believes is probably closer to between 20,000 and 28,000).

Chosewood said the CDC believes the risk of Ebola here in the United States remains very low, though he added that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the disease and the need to put “more resources on the ground in West Africa” to address it.

Returning to the focus of his talk, Chosewood said people would be mistaken were they to think they could separate work and home as far as health and well-being are concerned. “You can’t leave what happens at home on the kitchen table [just as] you can’t leave what happens at work on your desk. You shuttle them back and forth.”

Chosewood cited the example of a person who works in a factory who is exposed to lead and then brings it home to an unsuspecting child on the surface of his or her clothing. “Risks don’t just stay in one place,” he said.

During his talk, Chosewood also touched on the importance of changing the culture of the organization. Quoting Sir Michael Marmot (a professor at the University College London), he said it’s “unreasonable to expect people to change their behavior when the social, cultural and physical environments around them fully conspire against them.”

Chosewood shared a close-to-home illustration of the kinds of steps that can be taken.

When the CDC ran out of places to park and needed to build a new parking garage, Chosewood (then in charge of safety and health there) said he intentionally proposed picking a site that required workers to walk 15 minutes. While the move initially made him quite unpopular and existing employees complained about the distance, he said, new hires haven’t complained at all.

In addressing health and safety issues, he said, employers need to be willing to take “short-term heat” for “long-term gain.”

Chosewood said next on the Center’s to-do list will be to slow down the elevators so impatient workers will take the stairs. (I wasn’t sure if he was serious or kidding.)

According to Chosewood, there are three kinds of companies: bad, good and the best. Bad companies, he said, don’t do anything to keep their workers healthy and safe; good companies keep them protected from injury and illness; and the best do what’s needed to ensure their workers go home more healthy at the end of the day.

Employers that fall in this “best” category, he said, will enjoy more engagement, greater productivity and lower injury risk.

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Sniffling While You Work

For the first time in five years, the number of employees who said they go to work with the flu has dropped to 60 percent, after four straight years of increases, according to the fifth annual Flu Season Survey from Staples.

The 60-percent figure marks a drop from last year, and yet many employees still feel they can’t take a sick day, according to the office-supply retailer. Indeed, despite 88 percent of managers encouraging sick employees to stay at home, 40 percent of workers feel there is too much going on at work to stay away, and 31 percent show up sick because they think their boss appreciates it.

The Staples survey finds there are a number of factors that have contributed to the drop in employees going to work sick, including:

• Sick employees coming into work are now considered worse for office productivity than a security breach;

• Presenteeism recognized as a bigger problem than absenteeism;

• Employees are taking charge of their own health and wellness; and

• Recent virus outbreaks are affecting behavior.

“While we are encouraged that for the first time in five years the number of sick employees coming into work has dropped, 60 percent is still a significant number,” said Chris Correnti, vice president of Staples Facility Solutions at Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples.

“Clearly there is still much work to be done. Recent outbreaks such as Enterovirus in the U.S. underscore the importance of fostering a culture of workplace wellness. ”

Meanwhile, last year was one of the worst flu seasons on record, reports outplacement consultancy Challenger, Christmas & Gray, with more than two-thirds of states reporting that the flu outbreak had reached “severe” levels, says CEO John Challenger.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation’s economy $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits.  That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.   Online resource, Flu.gov, cites one study estimating that each flu season 111 million workdays are lost to flu-related absenteeism, which amounts to about $7 billion annually in lost productivity.

“New York alone saw more than 15,000 reported cases in the first month of the season, compared to fewer than 5,000 in the entire previous season.  These outbreaks and the resulting workplace absenteeism can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line; particularly in smaller companies where illness can spread quickly and incapacitate large portions of a workforce,” Challenger adds.

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The Wellness Journey Continues …

Earlier this month, the Economist Intelligence Unit released a study (sponsored by Humana) of 255 executives. It found that roughly 70 percent of the respondents believe their organization’s wellness programs are effective, even though only 31 percent deploy some sort of “rigorous evaluation methods.”

Kevin Volpp, founding director of the Leonard Davis Institute Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, is quoted in the report saying he believes asking whether wellness [programs] have value based solely on return on investment is a mistake. Instead, the question should be, “Do we improve health at a reasonable price.”

185998025At this year’s Benefits Forum & Expo at the Boca Raton Resort in Florida, there seemed to be ample evidence that the business community’s commitment to wellness is very much alive and well, even if the data isn’t nearly as visible as some might like.

As might be expected, many of the employers featured on the program are, with the help of the vendor community, applying tools such as biometric screenings, health coaches and gamification in their attempts to improve the well-being of their workforces and, in turn (hopefully), reap meaningful productivity gains. (Such approaches will also be explored at HRE‘s Health and Benefits Leadership Conference next April.)

During a session titled “Domino’s Pizza: Evolving Wellness Strategy into Business Strategy,” Domino’s Director of Benefits Sandra Lollo shared some of the outcomes her company has achieved through the use of Quest Diagnostics’ Blueprint for Wellness tool, which has served as the cornerstone of its wellness efforts for quite some time. Lollo noted that Domino’s uses four key performance indicators to gauge its progress: participation, a health-quotient score (including a wellness scorecard combined with HRA), metabolic-syndrome risks (targeting BMI) and tobacco use.

Eight years into its effort, Lollo reports, Domino’s has seen discernible improvement on each of these fronts. In the case of the tobacco-use KPI, for instance, the percentage of tobacco users has been cut in half, dropping from 26 percent to 13 percent over that period.

The company’s benefits team is currently in the process of rebranding its effort (“dusting it off,” Lollo says) and pursuing a more holistic approach to wellness, including adding components that address issues such as financial wellness.

As might be expected, gamification found a decent amount of air time at the conference. In a session titled “Gamifying Wellness: How to Challenge Employees to Lead Healthier Lives,” Goldenwest Credit Union Assistant Vice President of HR Ashley Shreeve co-presented with hubbub Vice President of Sales and Marketing Brian Berchtold and shared some of the ways her 421-employee firm has used the hubbub platform to drive engagement and change behaviors.

Through simply named challenges such as “Walk the Dog” (a 14-day challenge that involves, yes, dog walking) and “Home Cooking” (a 14-day challenge aimed at eating healthier foods), Goldenwest is getting employees to take a small but valuable step in a better direction. (In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew?)

One of the goals, Berchtold said, is to get employees to understand that wellness doesn’t end at 5 p.m.; it’s something that needs to be 24/7.

Goldenwest is attempting to undo the fact that “we’re asking our employees to be unhealthy by having them sit behind a desk all day,” Shreeve said.

For the 421-employee credit union, encouraging participation has not been a problem. All of its employees are currently on the platform and have, last count, completed more than 18,440 challenges.

(Here’s another interesting stat I jotted down from the session: There are more than 43,000 weight-loss/fitness apps out there today.)

Of course, gamification may not be the answer for every organization.

Elkay Manufacturing Co. Corporate Manager of Compensation and Benefits Carol Partington offered me a preview of a session she was slated to present later in the day with Interactive Health Senior Wellness Strategies Sandi Eskew: “Elkay Manufacturing: Tune Up Your Wellness Program.”

Elkay is entering its third year of on-site screening through Interactive Health. Under the program, employees who participate in the screening and independently declare they’re not tobacco users pay 20 percent less for their healthcare than a person who doesn’t do either of those things. From a financial standpoint, Partington said, that translates to about a $1,000 per year.

As with most things, the success of these initiatives often hinges on how well they’re communicated.

“We need to get employees to understand what we’re doing and that there’s a partnership; they’re not in it all by themselves,” Partington said. To that end, Partington and her team have worked hard to get the messages out into the workplace and employee homes. “You’d have to have your head in the sand if you didn’t know what’s going on,” she said.

What’s proven to be the most effective way to get these messages out there at Elkay? Through the organization’s plant managers, says Partington, because “it’s not corporate giving the message” … it’s coming from someone the employees know and trust.

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