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March 28, 2008

When it comes to alcohol problems, all industries are not equal

On average, about 9 percent of U.S. workers drink in ways that contribute to absenteeism, higher health care costs and lost productivity, according to an analysis of government data. But in some industries, the toll can be much higher. At 15%, hospitality tops the list of industries with a higher than average prevalence of alcohol abuse problems, followed closely by the construction industry at 14.7%, according to a new report on alcohol abuse by industry issued by Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems at The George Washington University Medical Center.

In addition, some demographics experience more problems than others. More than 18 percent of young workers between the ages of 18 and 25 have an alcohol-related problem, compared to just seven percent of workers 26 and older, and in every industry segment, men experienced more problems than women. For example, "Researchers found that men working in hospitality and construction are approximately 50 percent more likely to have an alcohol-related problem than women in the same industry. In wholesale trade, men are almost three times more likely to have an alcohol problem than women."

Prevalence of alcohol problems by industry segment
Hospitality.................Male 17.4%....Female 12.6%....Overall 15.0%
Construction................Male 15.2%....Female 10.0%....Overall 14.7%
Wholesale Trade.............Male 14.6%....Female 05.3%....Overall 11.9%
Professional................Male 13.3%....Female 07.1%....Overall 10.6%
Retail Trade................Male 13.4%....Female 06.2%....Overall 09.7%
Finance & Real Estate.......Male 11.2%....Female 07.6%....Overall 09.2%
Manufacturing...............Male 09.5%....Female 06.5%....Overall 08.6%
Transportation/Utilities....Male 09.1%....Female 04.8%....Overall 08.2%
Information/Communication...Male 12.7%....Female 04.8%....Overall 08.1%
Agriculture.................Male 08.7%....Female 01.9%....Overall 07.2%
Other Services..............Male 08.9%....Female 03.8%....Overall 06.4%
Education/Social Services...Male 09.4%....Female 04.3%....Overall 05.4%
Public Administration.......Male 06.4%....Female 04.1%....Overall 05.3%

Estimating costs by industry
Ensuring Solutions states that problem drinking is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing 85,000 Americans annually and draining $185 billion from the nation’s economy every year. Yet it is a problem that often stays under the radar with few of the problem drinkers identified for help. Researchers suggest this is a major public health issue, and one that employers should take the lead in addressing. similar to the way employers have led the way in addressing other public health issues such as obesity and diabetes. And as with most health problems, awareness, education, and early intervention are critical to changing behavior.

To help employers understand the workplace costs associated with alcohol abuse, Ensuring Solutions has devised a series of online alcohol cost calculators for businesses , for health plans, and for kids, as well as a return on investment calculator.

Using a hospitality industry example of 5,000 employees, here are sample results:

Likely number of problem drinkers in your workforce...458
Likely number of employees’ family members who are problem drinkers...621
Likely number of excess work days lost to sickness, injury and absence because of problem drinking ...159 Days Per Month
Cost of excess lost days per year...$266,052
Likely alcohol-related health care costs...$1,962,068
Excess emergency room visits...121
Excess days in the hospital...56
Emergency department and hospital costs...$441,383

Treatment options
Ensuring Solutions offers the full report in PDF: Workplace Screening and Brief Intervention: What Employers Can and Should Do About Excessive Alcohol Use. Their website also offers guidance and many resources for addressing alcohol abuse in the workplace. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) also offers many tools and programs

And don't forget your EAP. DOL suggests that use of an EAP is the most effective treatment modality:

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are generally the most effective vehicle for addressing poor workplace performance that may stem from an employee’s personal problems, including the abuse of alcohol or other drugs. EAPs are an excellent benefit to employees and their families and clearly demonstrate employers’ respect for their staff. They also offer an alternative to dismissal and minimize an employer’s legal vulnerability by demonstrating efforts to support employees.

March 25, 2008

Short takes: state depression rankings, PA vets, training, bias, health care, and more

Depression - How sad is your state? MSNBC reports on a recent study that ranks depression and suicide by state, noting that "Researchers found that states with easier access to mental health resources had lower suicide rates." The top 10 saddest states in order: Utah, West Virginia, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Nevada, Oklahoma, Idaho, Missouri, Ohio and Wyoming. Check your state's depression ranking.

Returning vets - The Philadelphia Inquirer recently featured an excellent series on Alpha Company two years after their return from Iraq. This National Guard unit based in Northeast Philadelphia lost six members during their 11 month deployment and has 131 survivors, who are police officers and college students, construction workers and drug store clerks. More than half have been treated for PTSD. This series tracks their experiences since returning home in their own words.

Training blog - In our travels, we've just discovered Thoughts from Training Time, a blog about ideas and issues for corporate and government trainers and human resource managers. A few sample posts we found noteworthy: Harassment training may save you millions; Employee reward ideas from the Tooth Fairy; and Training the trainer: tips for public speaking.

Wellness - One of the problems your employees may face in getting good healthcare is simply finding access to a primary care doctor, according to a recent story in U.S. News and World Report. As a sidebar to the story, they offer 7 Tips for finding a doctor. Some other resources: AMA Doctor Finder and WebMD Physician Directory.

The high cost of bias - Race in the Workplace features an excellent post by Adina Ba about Workplace bias costing companies $64 billion annually. Among other things, she discusses results from the recent Corporate Leavers Survey (PDF), which found that over 2 million managers and professionals leave their jobs every year solely due to unfairness in the workplace - things like being passed over for promotions, being publicly humiliated or bullied, receiving unwelcome questions about skin, hair or ethnic attire, and being compared to a terrorist.

Healthcare - Tom Lynch of Workers Comp Insider has been writing on healthcare in the US, comparing how we rate against other OECD countries on a variety of measures such as cost, quality, and longevity. Part 3: What do we get for the money? looks at whether we live longer or have better health in the US given that we spend 250% more than the average OECD country. It's eye opening.

Sleep deprivation - Human Resource Executive features an article by Scott Flander on how your sleep deprived employees may be hindering your organization's productivity. Some companies are addressing this by offering on-site nap rooms. In a recent survey, " ...more than one-third of those polled said their workplace permits napping during breaks, and 16 percent said their employer provides a place to do it."

FMLA - Workplace Prof Blog discusses New Jersey's recently enacted paid family leave bill and links to a report from the national Partnership for Women and Families which lists some interesting facts about FMLA, such as " ...only 31% of people take FMLA leave (which is unpaid) to care for a seriously ill family member, and only 18% take leave to care for a new child. The majority of people who take the leave take it for their own serious health problem."

By the numbers
7 Hidden Traps in Managing Workers with Disabilities, and Dealing with the ADA
10 Ways to Know When It’s Time to Get Out of HR
6 More Ways to Know When It's Time to Get Out of HR
10 Steps for Boosting Creativity
25 Health Tips for Computer Nerds

March 20, 2008

Planning for a recession

Economic news has been grim, heightening fears that we are facing a recession, if not already in one. It looks like we may all need to buckle down for the potential of a rough patch. Jared Bernstein, author and senior economist at Economic Policy Institute, offers a good explanation of what a recession is likely to mean to the folks on the ground in plain talk that everyone can understand:

But what does recession mean to folks on the ground? How bad is it, really?
Pretty damn bad. Given recent historical patterns, three million more people could join the unemployment rolls, and middle-income families, already squeezed, and with income levels still recovering from the last recession, could lose another $2,500.
Using historical data, he maps out what we might be likely to see ahead. To follow along with his thinking on this matter, you can read updates here.

Many workers are already facing an economic squeeze with the mortgage crisis, skyrocketing gas prices, ever-climbing health-care costs, general inflation, and the worry of the potential for layoffs looming. Plus, many people are burdened with too much debt - a heavy weight in the best of times and a potetialy crippling factor in bad times. Now might be a good time to try to reach out and help employees who may be experiencing debt pressure.

Economists are divided about how deep or how long our economic downturn may last. Here are some other resources for helping you, your employees, and your organization to weather the times.

Recession Planning for Employees - Susan M. Heatherfield of About.com's Human Resources offers excellent suggestions for concrete actions to take in planning for a potential recession. Her thoughts encompass planning for your organization's employees, for your Human Resources department, and for other departments within your business. Here are just a few of her suggestions:

Find ways to buffer your employees to minimize the impact of an economic downturn:

  • Have telecommuting policies in place.
  • Encourage employee carpooling.
  • Sponsor brown bag lunches and book clubs.
  • Provide training in-house minimizing the need for employee travel and inconvenience.
  • Effectively communicate the redeployment of any internal resources to minimize employee distress.
About.com also has an excellent section devoted to downsizing and layoff strategies. It's a directory of dozens of topics and articles on matters related to managers and employees alike.

George Lenard of George's Employment Blawg asks, Layoffs - are you next? - a question that may be on many minds. He offers a list of warning signs that may indicate vulnerability, and suggests ways to be prepared should the worst come to pass.

Newsweek's Patricia Kitchen suggests strategies for recession proofing your career - suggestions for managing both you represent and your future.

Cheap Healthy Good blog suggests some great strategies for recession proofing your diet - great practical tips designed to keep the rising grocery bills in line.

March 18, 2008

Midlife suicide rate spikes

When you think about a demographic with the highest suicide rates, the male teen to young adult group automatically comes to mind. Among 15- to 24-year olds, suicide accounts for 12.9% of all deaths annually. It's the second highest cause of death for males aged 25 to 34, and the third highest cause of death among males aged 15 to 24. Many suicide prevention programs are targeted to young males, and that's as it should be.

But recent data from the CDC tells us there may be other demographics that require suicide prevention efforts. According to a 5-year review of data from 1999-2005, the fastest growing suicide demographic is among adults aged 45 to 54. And among women in that age group, suicides jumped by 31%. Experts are stymied as to why a midlife increase in suicide is occurring - research is thin and theories are rife. But one of the most likely targets may be an increase in the use of prescription drugs:

At the moment, the prime suspect is the skyrocketing use — and abuse — of prescription drugs. During the same five-year period included in the study, there was a staggering increase in the total number of drug overdoses, both intentional and accidental, like the one that recently killed the 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger. Illicit drugs also increase risky behaviors, CDC officials point out, noting that users' rates of suicide can be 15 to 25 times as great as the general population.Dr. Dan Gottlieb who writes a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer states that midlife depression not unusual or incurable. He notes that he sees many middle-aged people who express feelings of lack of fulfillment or that their dreams have escaped them and it is too late to change. He cites a recent study that adds data to his observations:
Research published this month in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that the probability of depression rises around middle age, peaking around age 44. After studying data from 500,000 Americans and Western Europeans, the researchers discovered that psychological well-being is at its lowest during the middle of the life cycle regardless of gender or location.

What employers can do
As with any other major public health concern, the impact of suicide is felt in the workplace. According to the American Association of Suicidology, nearly two-thirds of all suicides occur among the nation’s work force, Americans ages 25-65, which translates to roughly 20,000 suicides a year. One of the first vital steps in addressing any problem is raising awareness, so the sharing of CDC data is significant in building that awareness. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) suggests that employers can play an important role in helping to prevent suicide. Because people spend such a significant portion of their day at work, employers have the opportunity to observe changes in behavior, personality or mood. Training managers to be alert for and make referrals when they observe signs of depression and other early warning signs of problems may save lives. SPRC points to the following warning signs:

  • Talking about suicide or death
  • Making statements like "I wish I were dead." and "I'm going to end it all."
  • Less direct verbal cues, including "What's the point of living?" "Soon you won’t have to worry about me" and "Who cares if I'm dead, anyway?"
  • Uncharacteristically isolating themselves from others in the workplace
  • Expressing feelings that life is meaningless or hopeless
  • Giving away cherished possessions
  • A sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn
  • Neglect of appearance and hygiene
  • Sudden unexplained deterioration of work performance or productivity

Many suicide prevention groups suggest an easy mnemonic to remember warning signs: IS PATH WARM
Substance Abuse
Mood Changes

If you observe warning signs or changes in behavior or personality, don't try to diagnose the problem or find the reason for the behavior changes, simply help the employee to find professional assistance through your EAP or an occupational health specialist. Work performance can be a great leverage for getting people who might otherwise be reluctant to seek help for a problem. For an additional resource, the World Health Organization has a 32-page booklet on Preventing Suicide - A Resource at Work.

March 14, 2008

Employers' best practice guide for helping veterans reacclimate to the workplace

We've previously discussed the importance of helping the military to return to work. Of the 1.5 million troops that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately one in every four is a "citizen soldier" serving in the ranks of the National Guard or the Reserves. In many cases, they will be returning to resume jobs at former employers.

As we've learned from the experience of returning vets in past wars, the transition is not always an easy one. Many who return are IED survivors with serious physical injuries such as amputations, burns, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Many others suffer from an array of behavioral health problems such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One recent Pentagon study identified that as many as one in three returning troops have mental health problems six months after their return. The study showed that the transition is even harder for citizen soldiers than for active-duty soldiers: "About 42 percent of the Guard and reserves, compared to 20 percent of active-duty troops, were identified as needing mental health treatment in two screenings. The first testing was immediately upon return from Iraq and the second six months later."

Helping to ease the transition back to the workplace
The Disability Management Employer Coalition and several large insurers teamed up with military and veteran advisers to examine the challenges and opportunities facing returning veterans and to identify employer-based resources and strategies to help ease the transition. The group, calling themselves the Workplace Warrior Think Tank, has produced a useful guide for employers: The Corporate Response to Deployment and Reintegration Highlighting Best Practices in Human Resources and Disability Management * (PDF).

The following are among the group's most important best practice recommendations:

  • Establish a Military Leave and Return Policy covering employees who are members of the Reserves or National Guard. A key component of that policy is to communicate the range of benefits and programs that apply, including provisions of the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which requires job protection for all employees who are deployed regardless of the size of the employer.
  • Inform civilian employees (such as those who work for defense contractors) who are assigned to work with the United States military overseas of the benefits programs available to them. In particular, employees should understand the federal Defense Base Act, which will cover them during their overseas assignment.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and behavioral health services to help returning employees (including members of the military and civilian employees assigned overseas) who have been diagnosed with or who are exhibiting symptoms of major depression, generalized anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Use good general disability management practices that apply, including:
    - maintaining communication during absences;
    - celebrating employees’ return to work;
    - giving employees adequate information about benefits prior to deployment;
    - allowing time to reintegrate after an extended absence;
    - considering accommodations to assist the employee’s return to productivity;
    - recapping changes while employees were gone;
    - establishing red flags to help supervisors identify potential problems; and
    - obtaining commitment from senior management to ensure that programs are given strong support and a cultural presence.
  • Offer sensitivity training to managers, supervisors and co-workers on issues and challenges faced by civilian soldiers during deployment and post-deployment.
  • Provide mentoring programs to link returning civilian soldiers with veterans in the workforce. The commonality of military experience may forge bonds among colleagues to support the successful reintegration of returning workplace warriors.

EAPs identified as a vital resource
The Workplace Warrior Think Tank stressed the importance of employers having not just an EAP, but one that is well equipped to address the full spectrum of behavioral health issues that are common to re-acclimating veterans, particularly PTSD and depression. In addition, the EAP must be poised to address the many family problems and stresses that can surface both during and after deployment. According to congressional testimony by Todd Bowers, Director of Government Affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 27% of soldiers now admit they are experiencing marital problems, and 20% of deployed soldiers say they are currently planning a divorce. And a CBS investigation points to a veteran suicide rate that is twice that of average Americans.

Employers must train supervisors and HR staff to spot warning signs for problems early and must have resources in place for referrals to appropriate help and support services. For employers who will have returning citizen soldiers, the next EAP renewal might be a good time to kick the tires and ensure that it is up to providing the serious support and mental health services that will be needed. The transition will not be a once-and-done matter, but a long-term issue that America's employers will be dealing with over the next few decades.

*More information and a copy of the full Guide are available through the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

March 12, 2008

Aging and work

We all know that as baby boomers age, there are more and more older workers in the workplace. But how many centenarians do you have at your workplace? A rather remarkable 101 year-old British bloke has been in the news because he is training for the London Marathon. He has to fit his training in his spare time because he is still employed three days a week at a plumbing firm. On this side of "the pond," we have our own centenarian workers - meet 101 year-old Ray Jenkins, who was named as America's Oldest Worker in 2007. This hearty Vermonter has been putting in a 40-hour work week as a maintenance worker on the grounds of the Champlain Valley Exposition.

It's likely we will hear more stories like this. According to the New England Centenarian Study, "Centenarians are the fastest growing segment of our population. The second fastest is the age group 85+."

Experts point to loyalty, work ethic, enthusiasm and experience as assets of the older work force. How ready is your workplace for the over-65 generation? The Center on Aging & Work at Boston is a good resource to have in your Rolodex and to check on every now and again to see their latest research. Right now, they are working on State Perspectives, including statistical profiles and The States as Employers Of Choice project. And for another resource, the Aging Workforce News is a blog that links to news and resources for managing the aging workforce.

Curious about whether you'll one day join the ranks of centenarian workers? You and your employees can take the Living to 100 calculator test (it requires registration at the end) to estimate your longevity. It also offers the following:

  • Personalized feedback for each of your answers
  • A Personalized "To-Do" list for you and your physician
  • A list of things you can do differently and how many years you will add if you do so
  • The option to sign up to take the calculator again so you can keep track of your answers see if your calculated life expectancy gets better or worse.
  • A yearly reminder to take the test again.

March 9, 2008

Short takes: mental health parity, wellness incentives, teleworking, and more

Mental health parity - A bill that levels the insurance benefits playing field for mental health benefits moved one step closer to reality last week when the House of Representatives approved a measure that would require group health plans to apply the same treatment limits on mental health and addiction coverage as for other medical benefits. The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007 would amend the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996. Currently, most insurance plans have caps on the number of visits and limitations on coverage for mental health services and addiction treatment. The House version of this measure is facing opposition from business groups because it is stronger and more encompassing than a similar measure passed by the Senate last year. For more information see:
-New York Times: House Approves Bill on Mental Health Parity
- SHRM: House Passes Mental Health Parity Bill
- Business Insurance: Mental parity bill steps closer to law

Wellness incentives - According to Risk and Insurance, when it comes to obesity and weight loss, cash is the ultimate incentive. The publication reports on a recent study by researchers at RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which suggests that moderate financial incentives can promote employees to stay healthy on the job.

Georgia gives a boost to teleworking - Georgia employers who start or expand their employee teleworking programs have a good incentive to do so. The state offers tax credits of up to $20,000 to cover program start-up costs and credits of as much as $1,200 per new teleworker. Last month, the Georgia Department of Revenue announced that 135 employers have been approved to take tax credits in 2008 for creating and expanding telework programs. These credits —- currently capped at $2 million a year —- will provide a tremendous return on the state's investment in the form of increased employee productivity and morale, fewer cars on our traffic-choked roads and less pollutants in our skies.

Work web usage - HR Capitalist suggests that if you're firing someone for excessive use, the problem is probably you..... Kris Dunn discusses an AMA survey on employer concerns and practices regarding employee misuse of the Internet and e-mail. The HR Capitalist take? Excessive Internet use isn't a policy issue, it's a performance issue.

Talent pool shortage - A U.S. News and World Report suggests that middle managers are in short supply, particularly in industries like healthcare, IT, finance, engineering, and sales. A recent survey of HR executives at Fortune 500 and smaller companies found they expect mid- and senior-level employees will be more difficult to hire in 2008. Most said they'd probably be paying 5 to 15 percent salary premiums to fill accounting, finance, marketing, sales, engineering, information technology, clinical, and midlevel management positions.
Hat tip to Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership for the pointer.

Workplace Eye Health and Safety Awareness Month - March is a good month to redouble your eye safety efforts. More than 800,000 eye injuries occur while workers are on the job, and close to 36,000 of those will require time off from work. Prevent Blindness suggest the following tips to promote eye safety in the workplace:

  • Safety eyewear must have “ANSI Z87” clearly marked on all glasses or goggles and should be worn at all times whenever eye hazards are present.
  • Workers should know where the nearest eye wash station is at their job site and how to use it.
  • Employers should be notified immediately if safety hazards are discovered.
  • Employees should have regular eye exams to make sure their vision is adequate to do their jobs safely.
  • Those who already have reduced vision should ask their employers if prescription glasses or goggles can be provided.

Nix on carnivores - As if it's not hard enough to find the right worker for the job, HR Lori features an interesting item about a job listing for software development interns that has an unusual job requirement: applicants must be vegetarians. She notes that this is the flip side of a recent California court case that found employers can discriminate against vegetarians.

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