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July 27, 2007

Caregiver employees are at heightened risk: how employers can help

We recently came upon a great LA Times article by Melissa Healy on the topic of caregivers
and the high toll they pay for the role they play
in supporting family members. This is a topic that interests us greatly—our EAP deals with an increasing number of workers who are dealing with the stress or strain of caring for an ill, elderly, or special needs family member. According to the article, about one in every six people is a caregiver and as the Baby Boomers advance in age, that number is expected to increase. Add to that the numbers who will be caring for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many profoundly injured either physically or mentally. The scope of the caregiving issue is significant enough that it prompted the EEOC to recently issue new caregiver guidelines for employers. Many caregivers are elderly themselves—about 30% fall in this category. Many others are sandwiched between caring for elderly relatives and providing child care, a double burden. Most caregivers are employed and the weight of their responsibilities takes a high toll on many aspects of their lives, including their work. Caregiving is an issue employers need to tackle head-on—according to a survey by The MetLife Mature Market Institute, which tracks aging, retirement and elder-care issues for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the cost of caregivers in the workplace may be as high as $33.6 billion a year in missed days, early departures, and on-the-job distractions. The heavy responsibilities of caring for ill or elderly family members also increases the chances that the caregivers themselves will experience financial, physical, and emotional problems. Many are forced to put their own career goals on hold or work reduced hours, and the health risks associated with caregiving are high:

"A 2003 study found that family members caring for those with dementia suffered suppressed levels of immunity for three years following their stint of caregiving, raising their risk of developing a chronic disease themselves. Other surveys have found that compared with the general population, caregivers—especially those with intensive caregiving demands and those already in fair or poor health—are less likely than their noncaregiving peers to attend to their own healthcare needs, less likely to exercise or see their doctor regularly and more likely to eat poorly and drink alcohol excessively."

How employers can help
Many companies are experimenting with innovative approaches to supporting caregivers. Many large organizations, such as IBM and Raytheon, are offering caregiver wellness programs focused on teaching caregivers how to effectively cope with their responsibilities and maintain their own physical and mental health. Here are some of our suggestion for things that employers can do to support the caregivers in their workplace:

  • Assess the issue in your work force. Take a survey to learn the extent of the caregiving responsibilities in your workplace so that you understand the pressure points and can plan the most appropriate response for your employees.
  • Train managers and supervisors to be sensitive to and alert for workers with caregiving responsibilities and to direct these employees to appropriate support resources, such as an EAP.
  • Learn about and publicize local caregiving resources that can provide practical assistance, such as meals on wheels, transportation services and and adult day care. Publicize these resources in your organization's newsletter or intranet.
  • Examine your organization's policies on flexible work hours and work-at-home options. Consider offering your employees more options on when, where, and how they accomplish their work responsibilities.
  • Consider expanding work/life benefits. If you don't have an EAP that offers work/life and caregiving resources, consider adding one. Research benefit options, such as access to temporary emergency dependent care or paid leave for caregivers that goes beyond FMLA standards, or voluntary time banks where other workers can donate unused sick or vacation time to to caregiving or ill co-workers.

July 23, 2007

Short takes: NH laws, COBRA, bonuses, drug use, social networking, and more

NH employment law changes - Recently enacted New Hampshire legislation relative to the minimum wage and the status of civil unions will create obligations for employers in the Granite state. Effective September 1, the minimum wage will increase from $5.15 per hour to $6.50, and to $7.25 on September 1, 2008. In addition, New Hampshire joins a handful of other states (VT, CT, NJ) in recognizing civil unions of same-gender couples. Charla Bizios Stevens highlights some of the ways this could effect employers:

"Each benefit offered to employees will need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis in order to determine whether the employer can, should or must offer the same coverage to civil union partners as it does to spouses. For example, federal law (ERISA) still governs employer-provided benefits and pre-empts state law. ERISA and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibit the recognition of civil unions or same-sex marriages. Therefore, the term spouse, when used in benefit plans governed by ERISA, does not include civil union partners.

State-mandated benefits, such as crime victim leave, must also be offered in scenarios in which it would be offered to spouses. If the employer provides medical, dental or other insurance benefits to spouses, the same coverage must be provided to domestic partners. Employers who provide self-insured medical, dental and other benefits must make sure the plan documents clearly identify whether or not domestic partners are covered as they are not covered by the same state laws that govern insured plans."

The linked article also notes other minor legislative changes, as well as some proposed legislation that was not enacted. In a related matter, the state of Washington's domestic partnership law goes into effect today. While the law is limited in its protections, some benefits will be extended to same-sex partners of state employees. Private sector employers have no specific obligations relative to this law.

COBRA - If you think having under 20 employees protects you from COBRA obligations, you may be wrong. Michael Fox of Jottings By an Employer's Lawyer discusses how an employer's conduct can jeopardize the COBRA threshold exemption. More on this topic from Diane Pfadenhauer of Strategic HR Lawyer.

Surprise your employees with a creative bonus - Jay Shepard of Gruntled Employees blogs about Apple's iPhone give away to employees, discussing many reasons why it was such a smart move on the part of Apple. He uses this as an object lesson to suggest that employers who find creative and surprising ways to reward employee will in turn be rewarded with better performance. Makes good sense.

Exempt vs. non-exempt - In response to a reader question, Evil HR Lady discusses the perils of misclassifying all employees as exempt in a misguided effort "to be nice." She points out the very real consequences of violating employment laws and suggests that, "Being a manager is very much like being a parent. It's fine to be a parent and a friend, but when those two roles come in conflict, you always have to pick being the parent."

New employee drug use survey - According to a new Health and Human Services survey, as many as 1 in 12 of your employees may be using illegal drugs. And some businesses are more at risk than others: The highest rates were among restaurant workers, 17.4 percent, and construction workers, 15.1 percent, according to a federal study. About 4 percent of teachers and social service workers reported using illegal drugs in the past month.

Background checks and social networking - George Lenard of George's Employment Blawg has an excellent series of posts on the pros and cons of employers using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace in hiring, background checking, and discipling or firing employees. A good read from a knowledgeable source: part 1, part 2 and part 3

Really short takes:
U.S. News issues Best Hospitals list
Lifestyle-Based Insurance Premiums: Somebody’s Watching You
5 Ways to Create Management Breakthroughs in 5 Minutes or less
Company secrets are walking out the door
Games at work may be good for you

July 11, 2007

Turbo-Charging your Workers Comp Program with your EAP

If you ask employers to describe an employee assistance program, they'll usually talk about resources and services to solve employee personal problems. They'll describe it as an employee benefit. And if they've had occasion to use the services of an EAP, they'll probably tell you that it is a very valuable benefit.

What you won't hear is any reference to workers' comp. Few employers talk about how an EAP can be an effective tool to reduce workers' comp and disability costs or how an EAP can support employees during the recovery process to ensure they get back to their normal life as quickly as possible.

But those of us at ESI Employee Assistance Group believe that we have cracked the code and figured out how to insert the EAP into an organization to help the employee expedite recovery while also helping the organization reduce overall comp costs.

The Problem
Let's start with the fundamental reason why organizations opt to have an employee assistance program. It all revolves around that fact that 1 out of every 5 employees face some sort of significant personal problem in any given year. Those problems impact their lives and their productivity at work. A good EAP can go a long way toward addressing these problems and helping these employees get back to full productivity.

When it comes to workers' comp, the fundamental problem is two-fold. First, too many people are injured on the job. And when injured, employees are frequently away from work far longer than the injuries require.

And that's where the EAP and workers' comp connect.

The EAP—Work Comp Connection
Anyone who is familiar with workers' comp knows that there are three key elements to an effective cost containment program:

  • An aggressive injury prevention effort
  • Immediate medical treatment by quality providers who understand workers' comp
  • An active return to work and transitional duty program

What we've learned at ESI, is that it is possible to utilize the EAP to essentially turbo-charge this sort of program.

Start with how injuries occur. While some injuries are the result of work site hazards, many injuries—arguably the lion's share—are the result of unsafe behavior. Relevant data clearly indicates that personal issues are the single most significant cause of unsafe behavior. The U.S. Department of Labor's data suggests that upwards of 40 percent of all workplace injuries have alcohol or substance abuse as the key contributing factor. And if you add other personal problems to the mix—depression, stress, medical issues, etc. — it is clear that employee problems are at the root of many workplace injuries. An effective EAP can head off many of these problems before they result in harm to the employee, to coworkers and to your organization.

And if you examine why injured workers have extended disability, all too often unresolved personal problems rather than medical problems are sabotaging the person's recovery. Personal issues are frequently barriers that keep people from returning to work and resuming their normal life in a timely fashion. Issues such as depression, family problems, debt and, once again, alcohol and substance abuse are the main contributors to extended disability. By helping employees tap into the services of the EAP, these barriers can be knocked down and recovery and return to work can be expedited

Why don't more employers use this cost reduction tool?
Properly used, an effective employee assistance program can address both the pre- and post-injury issues. So why aren't organizations using their EAPs more effectively?

First, responsibility for the workers' compensation program and the EAP almost always reside in different parts of the organization. The human resource department is responsible for the EAP, while risk management or the CFO is responsible for comp. Rarely is there one person or one department handling both. Add to that the fact that most EAPs are not attuned to the opportunity to impact workers' comp and disability. And, finally, the EAP is generally viewed as a nice benefit, but not a strategic business partner; and not as a strategy for turbo-charging prevention and return to work programs

To ensure an effective program, a couple of things have to happen. HR and Risk Management need to work together to promote the EAP, not only as a benefit for employees, but also as a tool for pre- and post-injury management. Next, employees must be made fully aware of the benefit. Supervisors must be trained to identify problemed employees and how to steer employees to the EAP. And, finally, the organization needs to select an EAP provider that is up to the task: one that fully understands work site productivity demands and complex issues such as disability prevention, as well as the counseling needs of employees.

Over the years, we have seen many employers integrate the EAP into their risk management efforts with extraordinary results. One large self insurance group has experienced an overall drop of more than 40% in claims. We believe that we have just begun to scratch the surface of how to make the EAP an effective cost containment tool and are working to make it even more effective.

Clearly, an EAP can be an effective tool in your overall workers' comp program. You and your EAP just have to know how to do it right.

July 6, 2007

July health & wellness observances

July is eye injury prevention month. Eye injuries occur at a rate of more than 2,000 per day, with half of those occurring on the job. Prevent Blindness offers fact sheets for home, sports, and the workplace, and OSHA offers information on eye protection. Also related to eye safety, July is UV Safety Month. Medem's medical library offers several articles on protecting your eyes from ultraviolet rays.

July is hemochromatosis awareness month. Hemochromatosis is a leading cause of iron overload disease. People with HHC absorb extra amounts of iron from the daily diet. The human body cannot rid itself of extra iron so, over time, these excesses build up in major organs such as the heart, liver, pancreas, joints and pituitary. If the extra iron is not removed, these organs can become diseased.

While not officially designated as such, we also nominate July as heat awareness month because extreme heat can pose serious health risks both at work and at home. Stay cool.

And speaking of staying cool, we would also like to note that July is national ice cream month. File this fact under "stress reduction."

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