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August 31, 2007

September health and wellness observances

It's back to school month, and with it an uptick in the number of planned health observances. The following links represent a selection of the most prominent observances in September and are offered to aid you in your health and wellness communication efforts.

Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month - aims to promote the benefits of alcohol and drug abuse treatment, highlight the contributions of treatment providers, and promote the message that recovery from alcohol and drug use disorders in all its forms is possible. The site is sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT).

National Cholesterol Education Month - the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has adopted a 2007 theme of "Know your cholesterol numbers—Know your risk—Give yourself some TLC." They sponsor an online Know Your Numbers, Know Your Risk online education kit with great information, including 10 ways to promote the month.

Gynecologic Cancer Awareness Month - reproductive cancer is often called the silent killer. This year, the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation announced the first national consensus on ovarian cancer symptoms, important information that should be made available to all women. At the Woman's Cancer network, access printable brochures on the symptoms and risks of reproductive cancers.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month - these are blood-related cancers that originate in the bone marrow (leukemia) or lymphatic system (lymphoma). The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society estimates 30,600 new cases of leukemia and 61,000 new cases of lymphoma will be diagnosed this year. The linked site is sponsored by the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, and offers a variety of links to fact sheets and brochures. Additional information is available from The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

National Sickle Cell Awareness Month - While Sickle Cell is concentrated in black populations, it is not exclusively so, a fact that is little known. It is one of the most common inherited blood conditions and is characterized by anemia with a low red blood cell count and takes its name from the presence of sickle-shaped red cells in the blood. The Sickle Cell Center from Medicine.net offers information on causes, diagnoses, symptoms and treatment of the illness.

September 10 - World Suicide Prevention Day - sponsored by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World health Organization this year's theme is "Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan" to emphasize that suicide occurs in all age groups and prevention efforts must be targeted to all groups. Plus, attempted suicide is conservatively estimated to be 10 to 20 times more frequent than actual suicide, especially in younger women. The economic costs of suicide and suicide attempts to society are substantial, estimated to be in the billions of dollars, and reflect the economic potential of years of life lost, the medical and treatment costs of suicide attempts, and the burden of care and suffering of families and friends of those who die by suicide and those who engage in various forms of suicidal behavior. The linked site offers informational brochures in English, French and Chinese.

August 27, 2007

New Employee Benefit Survey released

The Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics has recently released the National Compensation Survey, Employee Benefits in Private Industry in the United States, March 2007 (PDF). This 39-page report provides data from the 2007 survey on incidence and provisions of all private establishments. It is the first release of data on employee benefits under new industry and occupational classifications. National data is offered, as well as breakdowns by broad occupational groups, full- and part-time status, union and nonunion status, workers with average wages under and over $15 per hour, goods-producing and service-providing industries, employers with fewer than 100 workers and more than 100 workers, and geographical breakdowns by areas and by metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. Some of the major national findings include:


  • 77% of employees have paid holidays and vacations
  • 49% of the workers had paid military leave
  • 60% or private employers offer health insurance. Most plans require employee contributions
  • Employee contributions for medical care premiums averaged $81.37 per month for single coverage, and $312.78 per month for family coverage
  • Employer premiums for medical care plans averaged $293.25 a month per participant for single coverage and $664.04 for family coverage
  • Health Savings Accounts (HSA) were available to 8% of workers
  • 58% of workers had access to life insurance, and of those, 56% participated
  • Short- and long-term disability benefits were available to 39% and 31% percent of workers, respectively. When available, most workers participate
  • One-third of all establishments with 100 workers or more offered a defined benefit plan to their employees, compared to only one out of every 10 establishments with fewer than 100 workers.

Hat tip to Brent Hunsberger of At Work for alerting us to this release.

August 20, 2007

Top work distractions are costly

According to an article in Business Week, workplace distractions are costing $650 billion a year in lost productivity. It's hard to know exactly how they came up with that dollar amount, but there's no disputing the issue. It's harder and harder to stay focused in the workplace. The article is accompanied by a slide show depicting a dozen of the most frequent work distractions. Some involve non-work related matters, such as weather, news, and socialization, but even so-called productivity enhancers can be culprits: employees are drowning in a high volume of e-mails, phone calls, and "snail" mail and are addicted to cell phones, PDAs, testing, instant messages, and all the other "helpful" tools that keep us connected 24/7.

To protect productivity, you may need to help your employees to remove the most common distractions. First, try to analyze what the most common distractions are in your organization - the above list might be a good starting point. Get managers together to brainstorm creative strategies to help employees avoid such distractions.

We've come across some good ideas for reducing distractions. Here are a few suggestions from the mundane to the creative:

  • Teach workers how to create and prioritze to-do lists, and to tackle the major priorities that relate to job goals before addressing the smaller or discretionary items.
  • Minimize meetings and keep them short and focused. Some companies only conduct meetings while standing up.
  • Suggest that workers open emails only a few times a day. Batching distractions can be a good way to deal with them. Some companies program incoming mail so that it is only be delivered to the desktop at certain intervals.
  • Give people "do not disturb" signs they can place at their workstations; encourage "quiet periods" or "quiet zones" - times or places in which silence is encouraged.
  • Consider supplying people with inexpensive personal printers and online fax services to lessen the need for walking to and waiting around central printers and faxes.
  • Establish a mandatory visitor check in at a central point. This is not only a good security measure, it also discourages frivolous visits and cuts down on distractions.
  • Establish a library for shared work subscriptions and resources. This is not only economical, it will limit distractions and provide a central place for research and professional development.

When real life problems are the distraction
While many of the distractions discussed above revolve around the work environment or work tools, we would expand the list by including distractions that arise from outside the workplace but that are brought in, such as home and family matters. These can range from juggling the normal demands of family life - children, school, aging parents, moving, etc - to more serious life problems, such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and legal or financial problems. When extreme stress, fear, or anxiety are at play, it's nearly impossible for an employee to check these issues at the door and be fully engaged and productive in their work day. If you've ever experienced a life crisis like an elderly relative with Alzheimer's, a spouse with a life-threatening illness, or a runaway teen, you quickly learn the difficulty in keeping a firewall between work and the job.

That's when a good EAP can come into play, by offering the worker help to resources targeted to work-life issues, as well as help for the more serious and weighty problems that may be interfering with work, health, and emotional well-being. A good EAP will offer access to a variety of treatment options and resources for virtually any type of problems that a person might face. A good EAP could arguably be the single most effective productivity enhancer that an organization could invest in.

August 14, 2007

Short takes: healthy workforce, toxic complaining, obesity, wealth, and more

Occupational Hazards reports on proposed legislation that would bolster employee health and company savings. The Healthy Workforce Act, introduced by cosponsors Senators Tom Harkin and Gordon Smith, would provide a 10-year tax credit of up to $200 per employee to businesses that offer robust wellness programs. Programs would need to include such components as "health awareness programs and health risk assessments, behavior change programs, meaningful incentives for program participation and an employee committee that tailors programs to meet workforce needs."

Chief Happiness Officer thinks that "Constant complaining in the workplace is toxic. It can drain the happiness, motivation, creativity and fun from a whole company. Wherever it's going on it must be addressed and handled properly." He offers the top 10 reasons why constant complaining is so toxic in the workplace.

Lou Michaels of Suits in the Workplace discusses recent case law that illustrates that at least when it comes to pay scales, inconsistency is a hobgoblin.

Is your state overweight? MSN offers a state-by-state comparative time line based on data from the CDC that dramatically depicts the rising tide of obesity. The chart is accompanied by a 4-part series on fighting obesity, with articles on how to change the trend. This might be a good information to share with your employees.

Workplace Prof Blog points us to new minimum wage posters in English, Spanish and Chinese. Thanks, Prof!

Ever wonder how your income stacks up in the great scheme of things? Find out how rich you are on the global rich list.

August 10, 2007

Templated "excuse from work" letters abound on the web

According to a recent story in the Chicago Sun-Times on doctored notes, there is a profusion of web-based sites that sell templated "excuse" letters ranging from jury duty, funerals, doctor notes and emergency room visits. Most offer disclaimers stating that the letters are "for entertainment purposes only." The Sun-Times article advises readers that supplying fake documentation rather than just calling with an excuse serves to escalate the deception by actually providing a paper trail. The article also states that false documentation may be grounds for firing.

We bemoan the lack of imagination is such a cookie-cutter approach - it would be a shame to lose some of the highly creative work excuses that HR managers enjoy sharing. Nevertheless, if your organization requires documented absences, you may want to familiarize yourself with these sites. You may also want to look at your vacation and sick time policies and see if they unwittingly foster such deceit by extreme rigidity. We've found that employers with an "earned time" bank or some flexibility of sick, vacation and personal days have fewer problems with "creative excuses."

Thanks to Michael Fox of Jottings By an Employer's Lawyer pointed us to this story. He supplies live links to some of the excuse mills cited in the story should you want to explore further.

August 7, 2007

Heat can be a killer at work and at home

The summer of 2007 is turning out to be one of the hottest on record, particularly in the western states - and it's not over yet. During the last 20 years, well over 8,000 people have died in our country due to heat exposure—more than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined! Extreme heat is defined as an outdoor temperature that hovers 10 degrees or more above the average high temperature and lasts for several weeks under a "dome" of high pressure. See the National Weather Service Heat Index for a color-coded chart depicting the likelihood of heat disorders with prolonged exposure or strenuous activity.

Heat poses severe risks for many workers, such as outdoor workers, workers in confined spaces, workers who are overweight, who have heart conditions, or who are on certain medications. The risks are so high for agricultural and other outdoor workers that some states have enacted mandatory heat stress rules for outdoor workers.

An article in EHS Today on Beating the Heat suggests practical steps an employer can take:

  • Encourage workers to drink plenty of water—about a cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes, even if they are not thirsty —and avoid alcohol, coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks that dehydrate the body.
  • Help workers adjust to the heat by assigning a lighter workload and longer rest periods for the first five to seven days of intense heat. This process needs to start all over again when a worker returns from vacation or absence from the job.
  • Encourage workers to wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Workers should change their clothes if they get completely saturated.
  • Use general ventilation and spot cooling at points of high heat production. Good airflow increases evaporation and cooling of the skin.
  • Train first-aid workers to recognize and treat the signs of heat stress and be sure all workers know who has been trained to detect early signs of heat-related illness. Permit workers to interrupt their work if they become extremely uncomfortable.
  • Consider a worker's physical condition when determining fitness to work in hot environments. Obesity, lack of conditioning, pregnancy and inadequate rest can increase susceptibility to heat stress.
  • Alternate work and rest periods, with rest periods in a cooler area. Shorter, more frequent work-rest cycles are best. Schedule heavy work for cooler times of the day and use appropriate protective clothing.
  • Monitor temperatures, humidity and workers' responses to heat at least hourly.

Here are some additional resources for protecting employees from extreme heat:
OSHA Quick Card on Heat Stress - PDF - in English and Spanish
OSHA Fact Sheet: Working Outdoors in Warm Climates - PDF
OSHA Technical Manual on Heat Stress
CDC Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat

Risks at home
The Centers for Disease Control reports that young children and the elderly are most at risk for heat because they are less likely to sense and respond to significant changes in temperature. The CDC has devised guidelines to help us protect our elderly relatives and friends as summer temperatures rise - something you may want to circulate to employees:

  • Monitor Those at High Risk: If you know someone 65 or older, be sure to call them twice a day during heat waves. Be aware that heat induced illness can cause an older person to become confused or disoriented so engage in some discussion. Don't just ask them how they feel.
  • Be Sure that High Risk Individuals Have Adequate Cooling: Many elderly citizens rely on simple electric fans for relief; but fans only move rather than cool the air. If air-conditioning equipment is beyond one's budget, contact your local senior center which may be aware of cash grants or have equipment available on loan.
  • Assist with Meal Preparation: The use of stoves or hot ovens for cooking only adds to the ambient temperature during heat waves. You can greatly assist your elderly loved one by stocking their refrigerators with salads and cold plate items which will preclude the need for heavy cooking and may prove to be more appropriate and appetizing hot weather meals.
  • Become Familiar with Weather Related Terms: For example, the heat index is a temperature in degrees Fahrenheit that tells us how hot it really feels when the humidity is factored in. Thus, the heat index is more significant than the actual air temperature when the well being of those at risk is being considered.
  • Be Ready to Activate a Plan of Action: Be aware of the symptoms of a heat emergency, including an extremely high body temperature (above 103°, orally); red, hot skin with no sweating; a rapid, strong pulse; throbbing headache, dizziness or nausea, and confusion. Don't hesitate to get the person to a medical facility immediately.

August 1, 2007

August health & wellness observances

National Cataract Awareness Month - cataracts are the leading cause of visual loss in Americans 65 and older. Nearly half of adults by age 80 will develop cataracts, or clouding of the lens. This month, learn how to recognize the symptoms, find treatment, and educate others on this common (but treatable) eye condition.

National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM) - The goal of NIAM is to increase awareness about immunizations across the life span, from infants to the elderly. August is the perfect time to remind family, friends, co-workers, and those in the community to catch up on their vaccinations. Parents are enrolling their children in school, students are entering college, and health care workers are preparing for the upcoming flu season. This Centers for Disease Control site provides adult and childhood immunization schedules, along with more information and resources.

National Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Month - SMA is the leading genetic killer of children under the age of two. SMA is a group of inherited and often fatal diseases that destroys the nerves controlling voluntary muscle movement, which affects crawling, walking, head and neck control, and even swallowing. One in 40 people carry the gene that causes this disease. One-half of children diagnosed with the most severe form will not reach their second birthday. There is no cure for SMA, but new understanding of the disease has lead to breakthroughs in potential treatments.

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