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April 28, 2011

News briefs: religion at work, wellness penalties, addiction, are your employees videotaping you, and more...

Religion at work - Although religion remains a taboo topic at some companies, more employers are allowing workers to embrace their spiritual beliefs while on the job. At Workforce (free subscription required), Fara Warner explores some of the ways that companies are finding ways to fit religion in their corporate culture in the article Professionals Tap a Higher Power in the Workplace. Related: In a recent post at the Connecticut Employment Law Blog, Daniel Schwartz used Easter and Passover as a springboard to revisit the topic of religious discrimination issues.

Legal ruling & wellness penalties - Can an employer impose a penalty for non-participation in a health risk assessment? In a brief Employee Benefit Advisor podcast, Karen McLeese talks about a recent legal case, in which the court found for the employer in a court challenge related to a wellness program's financial penalty. She discusses the implications for employers and their wellness programs.

Of mice, men and addiction - "Recovering addicts are often told to avoid the people, places, and things connected with their addiction — tried-and-true advice that may be gaining support from neuroscience." Is an addiction a learning and memory disorder? Scientific American reports on new neurobiology research, which found that, "...repeated use of alcohol can make the brain more susceptible to forming reward-based associations. Mice given a weeklong binge of alcohol were more likely to remember the environment in which they later received cocaine. In human addicts similar associations could explain why certain environments are apt to trigger relapse." See: Mouse Study Suggests Why Addictions Are Hard to Forget.

Lights, camera, action - At Ohio Employer's Law Blog, Jon Hyman asks Are your employees recording you? He suggests steps that you can take to protect yourself and your business against these covert tactics.

When men are the abused partners - Although most domestic abuse is committed by men, sometimes men are the victims and not the perpetrators. At Domestic Violence and the Workplace, Kim Wells posts about two new papers published by the American Psychological Association which show that men who are abused by their female partners can suffer significant psychological trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Sleepy workers - As a follow up to our recent post on Shift Work Sleep Disorder, we note that Human Resource Executive's Michael O'Brien has an article on the topic: Asleep at the Shift-Work Wheel. He discusses shift work, biological clocks, and the impact on safety.

Salary secrets - At Compensation Cafe, Chuck Csizmar talks about organizational transparency vs. secrecy when it comes to the compensation program. He asks: "Why not disclose the key elements of your job evaluation and base salary structure? What's the harm in letting employees know where they stand, and what their career progression could look like? What's the harm? What's the big secret?" He also discusses the two key elements that secretive companies most frequently tend to guard.

Silly fun - What?! You haven't been exposed to Business Cat yet?! It's an internet meme that is sort of a cross between lolcats, Dilbert and the ubiquitous motivational posters. It's a cat in a tie that thinks like your boss would if your boss were a cat. Here is The Absolute Best of the Business Cat Meme.

Quick takes

April 27, 2011

Facebook depression: a new parental challenge?

There's been a lot written about risks for kids and teens online - it's certainly on the minds of many parents we speak to, and one of the most researched topics in our online member help center. The threats sound ominous -- cyberbullying, sexting, texting, and id theft ... but have you heard the one about Facebook depression? It's been the news du jour, lately.

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a terrific report entitled The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families (PDF) - there's a lot of good information about online risk to kids, and most of it makes good sense. The authors enumerate the benefits of social media - a refreshing point of view since so many stories of teens and social media emphasize the negatives. The report is balanced and also discusses some of the common risks:

"Recent research indicates that there are frequent online expressions of offline behaviors, such as bullying, clique-forming, and sexual experimentation, that have introduced problems such as cyberbullying, privacy issues, and "sexting." Other problems that merit awareness include Internet addiction and concurrent sleep deprivation."
If you're a parent (or an aunt or uncle, or a friend of a parent, etc.), we recommend giving it a read. Overall, it's a good report with a lot of information that should be helpful to parents, along with solid advice from study authors about the role pediatricians should play in supporting children, adolescents, and parents in coping with today's online challenges.

But in the seven page report, there is one paragraph that has been making news ... an item about a curious phenomenon called "Facebook Depression." Here's what the authors have to say:

"Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression. Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents. As with offline depression, preadolescents and adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet sites and blogs for “help” that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or selfdestructive behaviors."
If you Google "Facebook depression," there are more than 400,000 results. In the relatively short time since the AAP report was issued, the media, which has never been able to resist a melodramatic sound bite, has had a field day with this. We think that is too bad. Not because there aren't risks on the web that parents have to deal with, but because this rather imprecise syndrome is sucking all the oxygen out of the air. It trivializes depression. It raises a monster where there likely is none, and it shifts the discussion from the real issues of online teen behaviors, parental guidance, and real clinical teen depression to this sort of squishy pop culture syndrome with a catchy name. Seeing the spate of ominous headlines warning parents about monitoring their kids for Facebook depression, one can't help but think the study authors might wish for a do-over.

Weighing in on the matter of "Facebook Depression" are Eugene Beresin MD, Director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry and Associate Director Tristan Gorrindo MD. They are skeptics:

"... the term "Facebook Depression," confuses the real meaning of the term depression. A diagnosis of “depression” should not be based on the amount of time one spends with a particular media. Certainly, a student who practices piano five hours a day and then develops symptoms of depression, does not have “piano depression.” While it may be true that the excessive use of social media may be a form of an “addiction” or other “disorder” provided that it is dysfunctional and disrupts social, academic, or recreational functioning, these behaviors have not yet been formally labeled as disorders because careful research and clarification of these behaviors has not yet been completed – a similar process is needed before “Facebook Depression” can be deemed a valid disorder."
Later, they note:
"In our work with depressed teens and teens with problematic internet behaviors, we see a broad number of things that could be contributing to why a child is spending a lot of time online: social anxiety or social awkwardness, feeling unsafe at school, and depression, just to name a few. In fact, one could argue from the opposite angle that a teenager with severe social anxiety might attempt to combat the fear of interacting face to face with others using Facebook as a means of “opening a door” that is too hard to do in real time."
They go on to offer practical advice to both pediatricians and parents. Please do check it out, and don't miss the very good links they offer to sites that offer social media guidance for parents. We encourage parents to heed the common sense recommendations in this article, and much of what is contained in the AAP report. A Kaiser Family Foundation report says that children between the ages of 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours of electronic activity daily (this includes TV).

Now that's depressing.

April 22, 2011

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)

Today, it's air traffic controllers sleeping on the job. It could be worse. A few years ago, it was pilots who were falling asleep at the controls. If you'd like to revisit those frightening episodes and get some prevention advice on addressing workplace sleep-related problems, view our post on the high price of fatigue. The recent spate of well-publicized incidents might make it seem like this is a new problem, but Time logs a history of many such asleep-on-the-job incidents.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has responded with new measures, which include disciplinary action and termination of staff, adding a second controller on the late-night shift in 27 towers, and adding an additional hour between shifts. The FAA is also conducting further investigations. But on one matter, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stands firm: "On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps. We’re not going to allow that."

Air traffic controllers and pilots aren't the only safety-sensitive jobs that work late night hours and convoluted shifts. How would you like to have your next surgery performed by a sleep-deprived physician?

While anyone who works a night shift can be subject to disruption of the body's natural circadian rhythms causing fatigue, sleep-related hazards can be even greater with shift work when schedules rotate . Sleep experts call the resulting problems shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). Symptoms of SWSD include insomnia, excessive sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, headaches, lack of energy. Consequences include increased accidents, increased work-related errors, increased sick leave, increased irritability and mood problems. etc.

Numerous studies estimate the cost to business, but to appreciate the stakes, one need only glance at a handful of well-known accidents where sleeping on the job or sleep deprivation were cited as factors in follow-up investigations:

1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion
1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion
1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska
1999 American Airlines crash in Little Rock, Arkansas
2003 Staten Island Ferry crash
2005 BP Oil Refinery Explosion

These are the high profile really scary end of the spectrum, but there are every day, pedestrian incidents that cause smaller tragedies every day. Some estimate that the fatality rate and injury severity level of motor vehicle crashes related to sleepiness are on par with alcohol-related crashes.

A systemic approach to problem prevention needed - but can power naps also help?
The problem of SWSD needs to be addressed with a multi-faceted approach: examining work schedules, shifts, work hours, and staffing; implementing a staff awareness and training program; building in backups and safety checks for late night workers; and addressing fatigue and sleep deprivation through wellness programs. The latter might include health assessments for medical conditions such as sleep apnea, which are known to cause drowsiness. And we are not so quick as Transportation Secretary LaHood to dismiss naps out of hand. We agree that unsanctioned napping should be disallowed - but some research has shown that napping can be beneficial to shift workers and many organizations are signing on to the benefits of power napping.

More resources
Standard addresses workplace fatigue
Fatigue Management - from EMS World
40 amazing facts about sleep
NASA napping studies
A guide to power napping

April 18, 2011

Study shows discrimination against low wage caregivers

Despite the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) focus on an employer's responsibilities to caregivers, including last year's issuance of Employer Best Practices for Workers With Caregiving Responsibilities, a recent study shows that low wage workers are still facing discrimination. The Center for WorkLife Law has recently issued a report: Poor, Pregnant, and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers (PDF). The report is a review of more than 2600 cases brought by low-wage hourly workers. The report notes that most media coverage and attention to the issue has focused almost exclusively on professional women and salaried workers, for whom hours and benefits may afford more flexibility. Authors say that policy efforts need to extend to middle- and low-wage workers.

Employees with low wage, hourly pay are more likely to need more than one job to make ends meet. They are less likely to have benefits such as paid sick days and flexible schedules. Plus, low-wage workers are often employed by smaller employers who are not covered by FMLA's 50+ employee threshold.

The report discusses six discriminatory patterns that emerged:

  • Extreme hostility to pregnancy in low-wage workplaces.
  • A near total lack of flexibility in many low-wage jobs.
  • Low-wage workers treated disrespectfully, or even harassed,at work.
  • Low-wage workers denied their legal rights around caregiving.
  • Hostility to low-income men who play caregiving roles.
  • Harsher treatment of mothers of color than white mothers.

Advice for employers
The report concludes with some advice for various stakeholders. We have reprinted the recommendations for employers below:

For employers, FRD (family responsibilities discrimination) lawsuits expose the need for consistent workplace policies and greater training at all levels of the organization. Front-line supervisors of low-wage workers need to be trained and supervised to prevent caregiver discrimination and harassment and to handle family and medical leave requests effectively. In addition, employers should consider policy changes where feasible to alleviate the most common conflicts for low-wage workers, especially where policies lead to high turnover—and lawsuits. Cases document that even small amounts of flexibility, slight changes to no-fault attendance policies, or allowing minimal adjustments for pregnant workers, could make a difference in keeping experienced employees in their jobs.
Note: Thanks to Workplace Prof Blog for the pointer to this study.

Prior posts on caregiving
The high cost of caregiving: what employers can do
7 blogs that focus on work-life issues
Caregiver resources
Resources for elder caregivers

April 16, 2011

News briefs: transgender suit, COPD, exec pay, incentives & more

Transgender suit - in a legal first and a case to watch, a a man is challenging his having been terminated for being transgender. Plaintiff El’Jai Devoureau was hired as a male urine monitor in a drug-testing program. Upon learning of Devoroureau's transgender status, he was fired as being unqualified for the job since, according to his employer, he was not male. The lawsuit challenges the termination as a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which protects transgender people from employment discrimination. New Jersey is one of 12 states to offer employment protections to transgender people. More: New Jersey Transgender Man Says Firing Was Discriminatory.

Pop quiz: 4th leading cause of death in U.S.? - #1: Heart disease. #2: Cancer #3: Stroke #4: COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is also significant cause of long-term disability. More than 12 million people are currently diagnosed with COPD and it’s estimated that another 12 million may have COPD but not realize it. According to a story in Employee Benefit News, approximately 70% of people living with COPD are working and the economic burden for employers is great. DRIVE4COPD is a public health initiative aimed at increasing awareness and identification of COPD for treatment. Employers can participate by encouraging employees 35 and older take its COPD Population Screener, a simple five-question survey, to determine if their employees are at risk for COPD. Here's an online employer COPD toolkit.

When less is more - At Corporate Wellness, Fiona Gathright posts about survey results on the trends in incentives for health risk assessment completion. Here's a hint: it may not be as costly as you think.

When more is more - Equilar and New York Times report on the compensation of the nation's top 200 CEOs. The median pay for these executives was $9.6 million last year, a 12% increase over 2009. According to NYT, "In the fourth quarter, profits at American businesses were up an astounding 29.2 percent, the fastest growth in more than 60 years. Collectively, American corporations logged profits at an annual rate of $1.678 trillion." The accompanying article says that so far, this executive boon has not trickled down to hiring.

Retaliation - Mark Toth at Manpower Employment Blawg talks about "everything you could ever possibly want to know about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation" in his post Rhe Supremes on Retaliation. The issue at hand: Does the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provision that prohibits retaliation against employees who "file" a complaint cover verbal complaints?

Favorite motivational phrases? - In Ask MetaFilter, a popular online community blog where users post queries to other users, one particpant asked What is your favorite motivational phrase? There are some great responses from a variety of sources. (Warning: this is great resource, but as a public web board, note that you might encounter a word or two that may be objectionable.)

Quick takes

April 10, 2011

"Status-blind harassment" aka "Bullying"

Currently 44 states have bullying statutes that apply to schools, says Michael Kaufman, a partner with Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo in Woodbury, N.Y. "States are going to be addressing this' in the workplace also, he predicts. "It does look like there’s going to be a trend."
When it comes to employer liability for bullying, the jury may is still be out. There are no state laws covering private employers, but that may just be a question of time - currently, there are 13 bills active in 10 states: IL, MA, MD, NJ, NV, NY, UT, VT, WA, and WV, according to Suzanne Sclafane in her PropertyCasualty360.com article Do You Work With A Bullying Jerk?.

But just because laws don't exist now, employers aren't off the hook when it comes to bullying - there is nothing to prevent an employee from filing a complaint with a regulatory authority or filing a lawsuit, particular if they can establish some harm. Generally, an employer would be protected under employers professional liability insurance and insurers would handle claims much the same way they would harassment.

Wise employers are taking steps to stamp out bullying regardless of the status of legislative initiatives. Even if it never winds up in court, bullying is damaging and corrosive to overall employee morale and productivity. In the same publication, Sclafane has another article on What Employers Should Do About Workplace Bullying that frames the issue of bullying as "status-blind harassment. She says , "Experts use the term "status-blind" or "equal-opportunity harassment" to distinguish workplace bullying from harassment targeted at classes of workers protected under federal and state statutes, such as Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin."

She offers tips from experts on steps that employers can take to reduce the likelihood of bullying, including establishment of policies and expectations, training managers to recognize and be responsive to bullying, and using behavioral surveys during the interview process. (We'd suggest adding an EAP referral process in anti-bullying initiatives, too.)

It's also important to audit a workplace to ensure that the prevailing work culture isn't inadvertently fostering reinforcing bullying. Kathleen Long, one of the experts interviewed in the article, says that that there are two root causes to workplace bullying.

"One is that person who is hired is a bully already." The other is an environment that makes someone who might not normally bully fall prey to that kind of behavior. "Certain kinds of stresses put them in a situation where that comes up," she says, noting that economic stresses, highly competitive environments, or organizations that evidence unfair treatment or favoritism may nurture bullies and victims.

April 9, 2011

Three cool tools for your wellness program

Health Widgets and Gadgets for your website
CDC's Widgets and Gadgets - Here's a great body of free wellness tools for your company intranet. A widget is a CDC.gov application that displays the featured content directly on your web page. You can embed content on any site, and once you've added the widget, there's no technical maintenance. CDC.gov will update the content automatically. Adding a CDC.gov widget to your page means that you will have up-to-date, credible health and safety content. A few tools are also in Spanish.
There's quite an array of choices - here are a few:

Find more tools from USA.gov in the Health Gadget Gallery.

Heart health assessments and tools
My Life Check is a site designed by the American Heart Association with the goal of improved health by educating the public on how best to live. These measures have one unique thing in common: any person can make these changes, the steps are not expensive to take and even modest improvements will make a big difference. This simple, seven step list has been developed to deliver on the hope we all have--to live a long, productive healthy life.

Free Life Check Assessment - get a confidential assessment about your health.

The Warning Signs - learn the danger signs for heart attacks, cardiac arrest and strokes. Heart attack and stroke are life-and-death emergencies — every second counts. The sooner you call for help, the greater your chances to survive and limit damage.

Cancer prevention and control resources
Cancer Control P.L.A.N.E.T. - P.L.A.N.E.T. stands for Plan, Link, Act, Network with Evidence-based Tools. This portal is a collaborative effort aimed at providing access to data and resources that can help cancer control planners, health educators, program staff, and researchers design, implement, and evaluate evidence-based cancer control programs. The Cancer Control P.L.A.N.E.T. is intended to help its audience achieve its shared goals of reducing cancer incidence, reducing the number of deaths from cancer, and enhancing quality of life for cancer survivors. Sponsors include The national Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Cancer Society, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the Commission on Cancer.

Some of the many tools and topics include:

April 3, 2011

David Brooks: The social animal

In his recent entertaining TED talk, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about new insights into human nature from the cognitive sciences. He makes a case for why we need to pay more attention to and acknowledge our emotions, our instincts, and our intuitive life. This is in some contrast to the prevailing view of man as primarily a rational being. His ideas have implications for learning, for interpersonal relations, and for self-knowledge, as well as for the broader spheres of business, economics, and politics. It's an interesting perspective in terms of thinking about human motivation, and the whys, hows and whats of motivating people.

April 1, 2011

Health Risk Appraisals: Are you maximizing their potential?

The National Business Coalition on Health (NBCH) says that 60% of large employers are offering Health Risk Appraisals to their employees - that's good news. But offering an HRA is only one step in a broader program of engaging employees in their own health and wellness choices. Employers that simply offer HRAs without taking additional steps to ensure that employees fill them out and then follow up are not maximizing the potential benefits - either in terms of dollar savings or potential positive health outcomes. According to an NBCH survey, only about 4% of health plan members fill out an HRA annually, and biometric screening (for blood pressure, body mass, cholesterol level, blood sugar, bone density, cardiovascular health) is even less common.

This lack of follow-through is unfortunate because early detection can have the dual benefits of improving outcomes and being less costly. Consider these statistics that demonstrate opportunities for improvement:

  • 33% of breast cancer is not detected until it is late-stage cancer
  • 50% of cervical cancer is detected at a late stage
  • 33% of diabetics do not know they have the disease
  • 70% increase in the prevalence of diabetes since 1990
  • 34% increase in the likelihood that an employee of a small firm will quit smoking if a coworker also quits smoking.

In a recent newsletter article, Purchasing High Performance Health Risk Assessments: What You Don't Know Can Cost You, Brian Schilling presents various examples of employers that are successfully using HRAs to reduce costs, along with a case history of a municipality that is offering employees cash incentives and an insurer that is using a financial guarantee to try to maximize program participation. Schilling also offers a brief overview of the components of an effective HRA program.

For more in depth information, NBCH and the CDC offer a 22-page buyer "how-to" guide, designed to help users make informed decisions about if, why, when and how to use Heath Risk Appraisals with their work force: Health Risk Appraisals at the Worksite: Basics for HRA Decision Making (PDF).

The Guide includes three main areas of information:

  • Overview – the evolution of HRA, the evidence base for HRA use, common components of an HRA tool, limitations to HRA use, ten basic steps for planning an HRA program, and potential HRA sponsors.
  • HRA Features Prioritization Checklist designed to identify reasons for conducting an HRA at your worksite and what features an HRA tool must include to meet those objectives.
  • HRA Comparison Checklist – help to identify the HRA tool among those you are considering that best meets your workplace objectives.

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