Category Archives: health

Stand In the Place Where You Work

Here at HRE, we’ve written numerous times on the potential health hazards of prolonged sitting at work. Dan Kois, an editor at Slate magazine, sums it up a bit jarringly in the opening lines of his New York magazine article documenting his effort to stand continuously (even when reading bedtime stories to his kids) throughout the day during the entire month of April:

Are you sitting down? Nice knowin’ ya! If you sit down more than 11 hours a day, one study suggests, you’re 40 percent more likely to die in the next three years than I am. I’m standing up. I’ve been standing up all day. I’ll be standing up all month, in fact, without a break. I expect that at the end of that month I’ll be sore but triumphant, glowing with smug enlightenment.

As you might guess, Kois’ adventure concludes not with smug enlightenment but painfully sore calves, an aching back and a renewed appreciation for the sheer comfort that a chair brings. However, he’s also five pounds lighter, with stronger legs, greater stamina and, to top it off, he ends up being more productive during his stand-a-thon than in his previous, chair-borne incarnation.

Kois acknowledges, however, that what he did goes against the advice from experts on such matters, who warn that too much standing can be just as hazardous as too much sitting. Indeed, he notes, people who have no choice but to stand all day — such as retail employees and waitresses — frequently suffer from ailments such as varicose veins and lower-back pain. Ideally, the experts tell Kois, employees — the ones lucky enough to be able to choose whether to sit or stand during the day — will alternate being in a chair with standing while working and taking frequent breaks to move around.  They also stress the importance of using good posture when standing, making use of sit-stand desks when possible and using shoes that provide proper foot support.

And, I should also add, remaining considerate of those who choose to continue making full-time use of their comfy chairs in the workplace. Consider Kois’ reference to that eternal font of wisdom, The Simpsons:

Sitting, the great equalizer,” Mr. Burns memorably told Homer Simpson. “From the lowliest peasant to the mightiest pharaoh, who doesn’t enjoy a good sit?”



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Listening to the Data

I was having lunch the other day across the street from a noisy construction site. It wasn’t the best location in the world to read a book and enjoy a sandwich, but it was one of the few places I could find with some comfortable shade.

122399493As I sat there consuming my sandwich (and drink), I remember thinking to myself, “How in the world do these folks work eight hours straight with all that banging and clanging? I’m sure they were wearing protective gear to diffuse some of that noise, but despite the protection, it still had to be loud enough to drive a sane person crazy. (I eventually moved.)

If you’re like me, you probably know a few folks who’ve lost a decent amount of hearing as a result of the work they do. Some recognize they have a problem and have taken steps to remedy it, say by acquiring a hearing aid. Others are less aware, perhaps in denial or simply reluctant to do something about it. (According to the National Center on Hearing Assessment, only one in four people with hearing loss use hearing aids.)

When we think of the health and well-being of employees, a host of issues comes to mind. Diet. Exercise. Regular checkups. Hearing loss? Not really. But as a Better Hearing Institute press release sent out the other day to raise awareness on this issue points out, the problem of hearing loss is widespread, affecting more than 40 million Americans. And costly.

In an effort to bring attention to the issue, the American Tinnitus Association recently sent out its own press release, encouraging both employers and employees to be proactive. It urged employers to develop engineering controls to reduce overall noise output and implement administrative procedures to minimize workers’ noise exposure. Meanwhile, it asked workers to take control of their hearing health by using appropriate ear and noise protectors.

Of course, before either of these things are going to happen, employers and employees alike are going to have to get on the same page and acknowledge that a noise problem exists. Soon-to-be-released research suggests there’s a definite disconnect here between the perceptions of the two.

According to a survey of 1,500 full-time workers and nearly 500 benefits professionals by EPIC Hearing Healthcare ( a hearing-care provider), employees and employers each have a somewhat different take on the situation. Asked how many hours a day they believe their workplace is noisy, more than half (55 percent) of the employee respondents said it is noisy for more than one hour a day and more than one-third (36 percent) said it was noisy for more than three hours a day. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of employers said their workplace is hardly ever noisy.

The EPIC research also found nearly half of the employees felt the level of noise at work was damaging their hearing, even though less than one in four have had their hearing checked in the past two years.

In light of the above data and the impact hearing loss can have on productivity, employers shouldn’t be turning a deaf ear to this issue (excuse the pun). Indeed, they certainly have no shortage of tools available to them, ranging from reducing noise levels in their workplaces and providing employees with better protection to offering “financial support” through insurance products (EPIC’s business) and raising employee awareness.

Being this month is National Employee Wellness Month, I would think it might be as good a time as any for employers to revisit the state of their respective workplaces as far as noise exposure is concerned and the efforts that they’re taking to address the problem.

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Another Drowsy Day at the Office

sleepy employeeFor the average employee, a truly good night’s sleep may seem like a distant memory from the days before adulthood arrived with all sorts of grown-up problems in tow.

So, employees adjust and learn to function at high levels, even with less quality rest. But the effects of losing sleep to financial, familial and other worries can still be seen at work.

The Virgin Pulse Institute—the new research arm of Framingham, Mass.-based Virgin Pulse—recently surveyed 1,139 workers at three companies, in an effort to better understand sleep disturbances and offer insight on how to help employees sleep more soundly.

The study found nearly 30 percent of employees reporting they were “unhappy” or “very unhappy” with the quality or quantity of their sleep. More than 75 percent said they feel tired “many days of the week,” with 15 percent saying they doze off at work during the day at least once weekly.

What keeps employees tossing and turning at night, and, in turn, leaves them sluggish at their desks the next day? Environmental factors identified in the study as sleep disruptors included room temperature (85.2 percent), partners (71.9 percent), noise (68.6 percent), bright lights (52.8 percent), mattresses (40 percent) and young children (35.9 percent).

These findings only make sense, and it’s natural that poor sleep can lead to poor performance at work. But what can employers do about it? How can you help encourage employee behaviors that result in better-rested and, therefore, more alert and productive workers?

Jennifer Turgiss, vice president of health solutions at Virgin Pulse, director of the Virgin Pulse Institute and lead author of the study, offers a few suggestions.

“Employers have lots of opportunities to encourage employees to improve their sleep habits,” says Turgiss. “First, they can focus on creating awareness. Provide employees with tips and information about how to improve sleep. Host a brown-bag lunch with a sleep expert. Encourage employees to share tips on what works for them.”

She also urges HR professionals to review internal policies, to ensure the organization has procedures in place to help support improved sleeping habits among the workforce.

“For example,” says Turgiss, “a company could put in place a policy that makes it clear that managers don’t expect employees to respond to emails after certain hours or on weekends. This can help alleviate the worry and concerns that keep people up at night.”

Finally, she recommends that companies provide programs focused on improving sleep habits; an especially important offering at firms employing workers at risk of sleep deprivation—shift workers or frequent overtime workers, for instance.

Physical appearance and behavior are “great indicators” of an individual suffering from poor sleep, and HR and other leaders in the organization should also be asking themselves a variety of questions to help identify the signals of sleep-starved employees, says Turgiss.

Do [employees] look tired or sleepy? Do they fall asleep in meetings? Do they seem more irritable? Have they missed more days of work or has their output decreased significantly? Are they forgetful? Do they have trouble recalling details of projects? Have they made more mistakes than usual?”

Some workers may function better than others with little sleep, she says, “but the telltale signs are usually there.”

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The Cost of Cancer in the Workplace

I came across some pretty alarming statistics the other day regarding cancer’s impact on the workplace.

78770849-- cancer at workThe report, from the Integrated Benefits Institute, shows cancer typically costs employers about $19,000 annually per 100 employees in lost work time and medical treatments.

Broken down, lost work time and underperformance at work, the latter also known as presenteeism, due to cancer costs employers $10,000 per 100 workers, and medical and pharmacy treatments cost about $9,100. Employees with cancer, the report says, are absent 3.8 more days per year than workers without cancer, and also lose the equivalent of 1.8 more days per year to presenteeism.

In the words of Tom Parry, IBI president:

Cancers present complex challenges for the workplace. At a basic, human level, a cancer diagnosis is a frightening, sometimes emotionally devastating, event. It is natural that co-workers and supervisors will want to provide support to a friend and colleague when told he or she has cancer. At the same time, balancing privacy and workplace accommodation is a critical, but sensitive, issue. Many employees with cancer will frequently feel too sick to work, while others report that remaining on the job keeps them ‘connected’ and provides a sense of routine as they undergo treatment.”

Considering there are very few of us who have not been touched by cancer, myself included (my father is undergoing chemo as we speak), I’m thinking the disease must touch just about every workplace as well. So, given the prevalence and inherent challenges in addressing it, what are employers to do?

The IBI report suggests upping your commitment to workplace-based cancer screening and job accommodations. Here are some of those advantages, according to the study:

  • Compliance rates with cancer-screening guidelines are highest when there is access through insurance-plan coverage.
  • Workplace educational programs have been shown to raise awareness of and screening for colorectal cancer.
  • Workplace screening for breast cancer reduces lost productivity.
  • Employees whose breast cancer was detected early through on-site mammography experienced half as many lost workdays for treatment as employees whose cancer was detected later.
  • Providing job accommodations or other workplace stay-at-work or return-to-work opportunities has been shown to help employees with cancer remain on the job.

Also worth looking into, if you haven’t already, is the National Business Group on Health’s cancer guide, An Employer’s Guide to Cancer Treatment and Prevention, which I blogged about back in November.

In that post, I suggest we’re only going to see cancer cases at work grow as baby boomers age and stay in the workplace. It’s … well … increasingly part of life. And getting older. Ask my dad.

As Helen Darling, retiring NBGH president and CEO, puts it in the November post:

Today, more than ever, employers are facing the growing impact of cancer … . With significant gains in cancer survival rates and most cancer survivors staying at work during their treatment or returning to work after their treatment, employers need a comprehensive benefits plan to ensure that their current strategies to address cancer in the workplace complement the needs of their employees. Cancer casts a wide net, affecting not only those diagnosed with the disease, but also family members, friends, managers and co-workers. The impact on a company’s culture can be profound.”


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Another Sign Your Talent May Be Bolting: Hooky

160611067-- sick employeeA month ago, almost to the day, Editor David Shadovitz posted this about a Utah State University professor’s study laying out specific behaviors to look for in top talent about to head out the door.

I thought the signs themselves, as revealed by researcher Tim Gardner, were interesting and deserve repeating. Employees about to leave, he found:

  • Offered fewer constructive contributions in meetings;
  • Were more reluctant to commit to long-term projects;
  • Became more reserved and quiet;
  • Became less interested in advancing in the organization;
  • Were less interested in pleasing their boss than before;
  • Avoided social interactions with their boss and other members of management; and
  • Began doing the minimum amount of work needed and no longer went beyond the call of duty.

Now, thanks to this from Monster Worldwide, we have another dimension to offer up in this flight-detection protocol: playing hooky. Or at least playing “I have a doctor’s appointment.”

According to Monster’s global poll, based on votes cast by Monster visitors from Dec. 2 through 6 of last year, 44 percent of respondents consider telling their boss they have a medical appointment to be the best excuse to leave work for a job interview.

The second-most-popular choice for getting out of work to interview for other work is also health-related: saying they’re sick, weighing in at 15 percent. Of course, the way I see it, both excuses — especially the latter — requires some play-acting as well, so perhaps there are some additional behavior traits we can read between the lines.

There were other non-health-related excuses — childcare, at 12 percent, and delivery/repairman at 8 percent — but faking personal health challenges topped the chart.

Especially interesting, I thought, were the differences in faking forte by country. As the Monster release states:

French respondents are the most likely to create faux doctor’s appointments when sneaking out for interviews, with 54 percent answering that they believe it is the best excuse;      conversely, French respondents are the least likely to fake an illness to excuse an interview-related absence, with only 7 percent selecting it as the best option. Respondents in the United States were the biggest proponents of the call-in-sick method, with 16 percent choosing illness as their preferred excuse. Canadian respondents were the least likely to use a delivery/repairman excuse, with under 7 percent selecting this option and were the most inclined to use a childcare-related excuse, with 16 percent picking this answer.”

Mary Ellen Slayter, a career-advice expert for Monster, says all employers ought to look at this as a reminder that “they have no choice but to be on both sides of this coin.”

“Making it easy for people to be honest is a good approach,” she says. “That means when you’re recruiting, make an effort to schedule interviews before or after work hours — or perhaps at lunch. With your own workers, don’t press them about how they’re spending their requested time off.”

As for what you’re supposed to do when you notice your top talent scheduling an inordinate number of doctor’s appointments, that’s anyone’s guess. I would think that might be a good time to start examining their engagement levels.

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Creating a Culture of Well-being

The breakfast spread—fresh fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, muffins—preceding yesterday’s opening keynote at the 2014 i4cp Conference at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess should have been a clear giveaway as to the focus of this year’s opening keynote.

457068405Author Tom Rath, whose latest book is Eat Move Sleep, opened the conference with an engaging and thought-provoking talk on well-being and productivity. (Rath apparently delivers keynotes all the time, but this was the first time I personally heard him speak.)

Rath notes that the big question far too few corporate leaders ask is: How do we ensure that employees have the energy they need to be effective on a day-to-day basis? (Rath noted that only 8 percent of employees say their well-being is better off because of their employer.)

If organizations want to build an engaged and productive workforce, he told attendees, leaders are going to need to begin to ask that question.

One interesting sound bite from Rath’s remarks was that the relationship employees have with their boss or manager has a huge influence on their well-being and engagement. (In other words, bad bosses will inevitably result in unhealthy outcomes.)

Based on the research out there today, he said, “we wonder if the quality of your immediate manager may be more important for your physical health than the quality of your physician.” That’s certainly a sobering thought.

Rath noted that, when followers were asked what they want from their leaders, trust was at the top of the list. But right up there as well was caring. “If you were to step back and say, ‘What’s the hallmark of any great relationship between a leader and manager, and someone who works for him or her?’ ” he said, “I would say it’s that sense of caring … .”

At a little more than 200 pages, I’m looking forward to reading Eat Move Sleep (which was generously included in attendees’ registration packets) on my trip back to Philadelphia. I’ll be the first to admit I could probably do a lot better on all three fronts. Perhaps Rath’s book could be of some assistance.

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A Walking Path to Greater Productivity?

By now, I’m sure most of you are familiar with them, even if you haven’t seen one of these strange-looking devices in a workplace setting yet.

Yes, I’m talking about workstation treadmills, which we first wrote in-depth about in 2009 when our managing editor, Kris Frasch, put one to the test at SHRM’s annual conference.

Of course, at the time, the vendors of these unique devices asserted that they would not only improve the health and well-being of your workforce, but would also go a long way to boosting productivity. But while that certainly seems intuitive enough, little, if any, evidence existed to back up that claim.

SteelcaseNow, those vendors (including Steelcase, whose Walkstation is featured here) can at least point to one study by researchers at the University of Minnesota, who recently found that these treadmills had a significantly favorable impact on both physical activity (burning off 7 percent or 8 percent of their calories per day) and work performance.  (To calculate productivity, they used employee and supervisor surveys that measured, using a 10-point scale, the levels and quality of performance, as well as the quality of interaction with co-workers.)

“For the duration of the study, productivity increased by close to a point,” says lead author Avner Ben-Ner, professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “That’s a substantial increase.”

Ben-Ner describes the findings as a win-win situation:

It’s a health-improving option that costs very little. I think there will be an increasing number of employers [that] will invest $1,000 or $2,000 in outfitting a persons’ workstation. The employer benefits from the employee being active and healthy and more smart because more blood is flowing to the brain.”

Ben-Ner predicts that millennials would be particularly open to this sort of thing “because they grew up and came of age in a time [when people were, and are, more familiar and versed in] these types of things. It will be easier than trying to break in someone who is 50 years old and a lifelong sedentary person and get them to start walking.” (I certainly can relate to that.)

At this point in their product lifecycle, I’m not sure what traction these treadmills are getting within corporations. Guess it might be worth asking about at HRE‘s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference the week after next in Las Vegas. In the meantime, I have to think research like this isn’t going to hurt.

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A Comprehensive Cancer Guide for Employers

With workforces getting older and older as boomers stay on longer and longer, an annoucement like this was bound to happen sooner or later.

78770849-- cancer at workThe National Business Group on Health just got there first.

In announcing last week its release of An Employer’s Guide to Cancer Treatment and Prevention, the NBGH called it “the industry’s first publication of its kind” and a culmination of three years of work in conjunction with the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

“Today, more than ever, employers are facing the growing impact of cancer in the workplace,” NBGH President and CEO Helen Darling says in her organization’s release about the initiative. “With significant gains in cancer survival rates and most cancer survivors staying at work during their treatment or returning to work after their treatment, employers need a comprehensive benefits plan to ensure that their current strategies to address cancer in the workplace complement the needs of their employees.

“Cancer casts a wide net,” she adds, “affecting not only those diagnosed with the disease, but also family members, friends, managers and co-workers. The impact on a company’s culture can be profound.”

The Guide provides technical assistance to help employers design, implement and monitor the performance of their cancer-related strategies. It contains a series of six tools with guidelines and recommendations based on published research and reports, including the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology.

According to the NBGH, the tools are designed to coincide with the various steps in the employer-benefit life cycle, including plan design, vendor and program management, enrollment and communications, plan administration, and vendor and program evaluation. It also addresses issues across the continuum of cancer care, including medical, pharmacy and behavioral benefits; short-term disability; family medical leave; employee assistance programs; and health improvement programs, says the release.

Robert W. Carlson, CEO of NCCN, describes the guide as a “groundbreaking toolkit [that] empowers employers to be proactive in their approach to dealing with the needs of their employees as they deal with their own or a loved one’s cancer.”

Nothing to analyze or poke holes in here. Strictly a good-news story simply worth sharing.



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Removing the Stigma Around Depression

It’s hard not to pay attention to a number like $44 billion.

That’s what depression costs employers annually, according to one of the speakers at a session titled “A Step in the Right Direction: Addressing Depression in the Workplace” at this week’s National Business Coalition on Health’s annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In an effort to reconfirm that figure, I checked out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. There, the CDC estimates that depression causes “200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 billion to $44 billion.” But whether we’re talking $17 billion or $44 billion, there’s no denying we’re dealing with some pretty serious dollars here.

In light of this, you’d think employers would have plenty of tools available to them for addressing this issue. But according to the panelists at the NBCH session, that hasn’t been the case.

153893456“We’ve made great strides in terms of awareness of mental health and depression issues, but there’s still a long way to go,” explained Clare Miller, director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health (a program of the American Psychiatric Foundation) in Arlington, Va., and one of the panelists. “Even though the dialogue has changed, many, many people fail to reach out for help.”

Miller pointed out that “depression can result in sleep problems, trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, physical aches and pains, irritability, and just a pervasive period of sadness or lack of motivation.  It can have a very serious effect on people’s ability to be effective in the workplace.”

To address the issue, Miller’s organization and Employers Health, a national employer coalition based in Canton, Ohio, introduced in May a toolkit titled RightDirection that aims to “raise awareness about depression in the workplace and its effect on productivity, promote early recognition of symptoms, and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.”

In a press release on the initiative, Marcas Miles, director of programs and communications at Employers Health and one of the session’s panelists, explained that the program “goes beyond telling employers what they should do to actually providing them [with] a step-by-step tool to de-stigmatize depression in the workplace … .”

All of the panelists seemed to agree that changing the stigma surrounding depression needs to be at the heart of any meaningful effort. To that end, RightDirection gives employers and managers tools for talking to their employees about depression.

Sue Grabowski, president of Grabowski & Co., a Uniontown, Ohio, firm involved in producing the program and one of the panelists, pointed out that “everyday conversations will go a long way to eliminating the stigma around depression.” She said in helping to produce the toolkit, her firm was very careful about the words it chose to use.

Grabowski added that RightDirection is highly customizable. For example, employers have an assortment of posters to choose from to ensure its messaging fits the culture of the organization.

Panelists also included Susan Marsico, director of corporate benefits and HR systems at Online Computer Library Center, a Dublin, Ohio firm that supports 70,000 libraries around the globe. OCLC launched RightDirection last month in conjunction with open enrollment, positioning it as an extension of the company’s wellness initiative. “We want to let [employees and their family members, who are invited to participate] know that wellness is about the whole person,” Marsico said.

For some reason, RightDirection flew under HRE’s radar when it was released earlier in the year. But considering the importance of and huge pricetag associated with this issue, and the limited resources currently available to employers, I’m glad I ran across it earlier this week at the NBCH event and could give it some belated exposure here today.

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Getting More Value from Your Healthcare Spend

There’s been no shortage of tools released over the past few years aimed at improving the way healthcare purchasing decisions are made. As most employers know only too well, making wise decisions on this front is no easy feat. But with the combination of valid data and the right kind of tools, employers should find themselves in a much better position to get more value from their healthcare spend.

To that end, the National Business Coalition on Health released first thing yesterday morning at the group’s  annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., an online decision-support and planning tool called ValuePort. Later that morning, NBCH Chief Operating Officer Karen Linscott walked me through a quick demo of the product, pointing out its various features and how they work together.NBCH

Specifically, the tool has three components: a calculator to identify and prioritize areas to improve employee health and realize cost savings for 12 of the most prevalent health risk and chronic conditions (diabetes, obesity, depression, etc.); analysis of the employer’s progress in adopting value-driven health practices; and evidence-based strategies to improve employee health and, in turn, reduce costs. (The tool also includes access to a variety of published case studies and other content.)

ValuePort, which was funded in part  by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was tested in a pilot phase this year with seven business health coalitions involving 40 employers. At first, licensing of the product will be limited to coalition member organizations, with each coalition determining how it will market it to its members. Sometime next year, NBCH will make the tool available to third parties and non-member organizations.

A year from now, Linscott said, NBCH has set its sights on having about 15 to 20 coalitions licensing the tool, with each one having between five to seven participating employers.

Linscott said that the tool is designed to give purchasers a “clear understanding of where they are today in terms of opportunities to improve the value of their healthcare spend and trend that improvement over time.”

While she acknowledges other tools are out there, Linscott explained that ValuePort is the only one she’s aware of that brings all of the pieces together.

As more and more employers begin to use the tool, Linscott said, employers will be in an even better position to benchmark other organizations. “Employers are highly motivated by what the Jones are doing and are seeking objective information that shows them whether someone is doing things better than they are,” she added.

Linscott is hopeful ValuePort will be able to deliver that information and more.

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