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At Eddie Bauer You Can Work and Have a Life

April 1, 1997
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article
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Make no mistake about it, Eddie Bauer Inc. expects its employees to put in a day's work for a day's pay. But the Redmond, Washington-based casual-lifestyle retailer also believes its associates shouldn't confuse having a career with having a life.

Balance between home and work is a part of the corporate culture at the company, a division of catalog giant Chicago-based Spiegel Inc. At a time when many corporations are downsizing and shaving employee benefits, Eddie Bauer uses its work/life programs to help associates lead more productive and balanced lives. The company encourages its workforce to enjoy mental and physical fitness through programs big and small.

HR at Eddie Bauer has carefully assembled a benefits package that covers both the routine and nonroutine challenges of work and home. The investment more than pays for itself, because many of the programs result in lowered health-care costs. But the programs also help associates be more focused and productive at work knowing that resources are available to help make personal needs manageable.

Small touches yield big payoffs.
Sometimes mere words can demonstrate an attitude shift. For instance, several years ago, Eddie Bauer began referring to its employees as associates. "The focus is on the individual, not rank and Social Security number," says Sue Storgaard, director of work/life services. Secondly, Eddie Bauer purposely calls its associate program a work/life program. The distinction is made between work and life, two equally important elements. In fact, Eddie Bauer prefers the work/life title to "family friendly" to place the emphasis on the individual.

Many of the company's benefits are simple programs—relatively easy to execute—that recognize people sometimes need to take a break. In January 1996, for example, the company introduced Balance Day—a sort of free day intended for associates to schedule a "call in well" absence. All employees are entitled to one Balance Day annually, in addition to normal time off, accrued vacation, three personal holidays, national holidays and sick leave.

Eddie Bauer personnel welcome the bonus day, using it to run errands, attend to children or pursue hobbies. "We value the commitment our associates make to Eddie Bauer, and conversely, we realize that they have another life outside of work that's important to them," explains Storgaard. "Through carefully researched programs, we're offering our associates—whether they're single, married, parents or nonparents—an environment that reduces their stress at work and gives them more flexibility in their personal lives."

Since 1994, Eddie Bauer has introduced more than 20 new programs, from onsite mammography to emergency child-care services.

Eddie Bauer's HR professionals started to develop the specialized work/ life benefits plan by asking themselves: What do our employees really want, and can we afford to give it to them? Often the company can. Eddie Bauer has a strong track record when it comes to employee benefits. The company offers the usual array of benefits and services common to many companies, including various group insurance and savings programs.

Other extras include a casual dress code for more than a decade, subsidies for liberal paid parental leave and alternative transportation options such as preferred parking for carpools and a 40 percent subsidy for vanpools. And under its Customized Work Environment program, instituted in 1994, the company offers such options as job sharing, a compressed workweek and telecommuting.

The company always looks to do more
Since 1994, Eddie Bauer has introduced more than 20 new programs, from onsite mammography to emergency child-care services. That's not easy for a company as big as Eddie Bauer, which employs approximately 12,000 people who work to distribute products in the company's 450 stores throughout the United States, Canada, Japan, and Germany, and operate a global mail-order catalog business representing 30 percent of the company's revenue.

Storgaard says Eddie Bauer's success in implementing new work/life programs at such a rapid pace can be attributed to two elements: total support from upper management and the ability for Eddie Bauer's HR and work/life services professionals to set up the program administrative component themselves, cutting out the middle man. Storgaard says most large companies have separate information services departments through which all new programs must travel before services are available to employees.

It was 1993 that the HR department began seriously examining what more it could do for associates. It wanted to create a flexible work environment plus offer an exceptional benefits package. The ultimate goal: Make Eddie Bauer a highly desirable place to work—an employer of choice. A series of focus groups involving corporate and retail-store associates provided a road map for the company's executives. Clearly evident was the need to address dual-parenting roles, the increase in working mothers and the maturation of the baby-boomer market. In addition to their jobs, Eddie Bauer associates were juggling a lot of personal responsibilities.

To address a large part of the issue, an employee assistance program and a Child and Elder Care Consulting and Referral service provided by Working Solutions—whose response and service area is nationwide—were both implemented in 1994.

The employee assistance program offers a confidential assessment and referral program for personal problems such as family and work relationships, mental and emotional difficulties, alcohol and chemical dependency, loss and grief, stress management and depression. Legal and financial assistance is also available through the program, and is offered to associates as well as family members for no fee. Eddie Bauer's employee assistance program arranges up to three visits with a professional counselor to assess a situation and determine the necessary resources that should be tapped.

HR at Eddie Bauer intentionally selected a professional service provider that has a broad range of resources, counseling and educational services. Associates can call a toll-free, confidential hot line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays.

Eddie Bauer included elder care in response to statistics: According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the over-65 group is expected to grow to 35 million by the year 2000. This number will have a considerable impact on the workforce, which increasingly is sandwiched between the demands of caring for children and elderly parents.

Eddie Bauer recognized the development of an elder-care program as meeting a need that was imminent. Under the elder care resource-and-referral program, the company assists associates in a variety of ways—from housing concerns to issues for caregivers. More than 170 associates used the service last year.

Associates also can access books, articles and videos on gerontology-related issues. Trained professionals provide individual guidance and counseling on what to look for in a caregiving situation and how to address specific health problems. They also are versed in a wide range of topics and service areas, including the aging process and medical issues, stress reduction, respite, bereavement and grief. They're coached on the elements of family dynamics, intergenerational communications, caregiving at home, managing long-distance caregiving, financial planning and in-home support.

Storgaard has firsthand experience with the value of elder-care support. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and Storgaard found that the program provided her with valuable resources and saved her a lot of time. Without a comprehensive elder care consulting-and-referral service, Storgaard says she would have been hard pressed to manage both caregiving and work responsibilities.

Although the EAP and elder-care programs were major projects, dozens of other new programs have popped up. "A lot of our programs offer a great convenience to our associates and cost nothing to implement, except for staff effort in programming the computer systems," says Storgaard. "Associates pay the entire premium to vendors when they need the service, reducing any impact on the company's bottom line." Examples include group auto/homeowners and group legal plans, dry cleaning services that pick up and deliver at the associate's place of work, and onsite massages.

Eddie Bauer's commitment surfaces in many areas.
In early 1996, the company added several programs to its work/life benefits package. The Eddie Bauer package now includes Home and Healthy Postpartum Visits, adoption assistance and a plan that allows associates to enjoy group buying power through arrangements for mortgage loan discounts. "These programs were relatively easy to implement and have been well-received by Eddie Bauer associates," says Storgaard. In fact, Storgaard already has answered calls from other companies inquiring about these programs.

The Home and Healthy Postpartum Visits program is one particularly groundbreaking benefit. Hospitals are under continued fiscal pressure from third-party payers to reduce spending. As a result, many women find their hospital stays following delivery rushed. "Because of the shorter length of stay, mothers feel they and their newborns require more attention to follow-up care," says Michelle Hoeft of the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses.

Addressing these routinely short hospital stays, in 1996 Eddie Bauer developed its Home and Healthy program with Pediatric Home Care (an affiliate of Seattle-based Children's Hospital and Medical Center). A registered pediatric nurse is sent to the home of the new parents—whether it be an Eddie Bauer female associate or the wife of a male associate—within 24 to 72 hours of hospital discharge.

The postpartum visit includes an in-depth physical assessment of the infant as well as a physical examination of the mother. The registered nurse answers questions on infant hygiene, normal newborn behavior and bonding. In addition, there are discussions about breast feeding, incontinence and postpartum depression. "It was tremendously helpful for me to have a professional nurse come to my home and answer questions about baby care," says Judy Zall Neuman, director of electronic media, of her postpartum visit last year. "There are so many care issues that develop, especially when you're a mother for the first time. You need expert advice on matters you might not realize until the moment comes, and it's just you and your baby at home."

The Home and Healthy program has caught the attention of nurses' associations, doctors and other companies. "Since potential long-term problems and identifiable risks can often be detected in the first days after birth, Eddie Bauer is making a valuable contribution to the well-being of the baby and the new mother," says Nancy Swanson, marketing director for Pediatric Home Care. "Eddie Bauer is the first company nationally that we are aware of to offer this type of fully paid postpartum program."

The Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses supports the idea that mothers, newborns and families need professional nursing care during the early postpartum period. Therefore, this organization advocates the development of comprehensive maternity-care programs that include creative methods to deal with fiscal issues, while addressing the physical, educational, and emotional needs of the mother and new baby.

So far, 35 associates have used the program, which costs less than $4,000 a year. Two women were referred back to their primary-care physician for a follow-up visit, and two babies were provided with a test for jaundice. "The Home and Healthy program more than pays for itself if just one condition is caught early, saving a trip to the emergency room," says Storgaard.

Work/life values have support from the top.
Much of the success of such progressive work/life benefits can be attributed to the support of Eddie Bauer President Rick Fersch who human resources professionals say has encouraged change with literally no bureaucratic red tape. "He recognizes the intrinsic value of these programs to our associates as well as the company," says Storgaard. "We believe our work/life programs lead to fewer sick days, less absenteeism, and lower health-care costs." Eddie Bauer's culture doesn't demand cost-justifications for such programs, but Storgaard says she knows they're working and saving the company money. Consider when a mammogram detects a lump early, a flu shot prevents illness, or the Child and Elder Care Consulting and Referral service saves an associate considerable time in research by providing a quick day-care referral.

Although Eddie Bauer initiated many benefits on its own, it recognized the need to turn to outside experts for certain programs. The company's key has been to select providers that represent quality programs and expertise in specific fields. "Finding the right provider is critical to the quality of the benefits program," says Storgaard. In the case of Eddie Bauer, HR sought trained specialists in child-care services, obstetrics and postnatal care, gerontology and mental health.

Eddie Bauer associates receive work/life program information upon hire in conjunction with their benefits orientation. As new programs are added, HR provides updates in an internal newsletter, by company e-mail and in-store bulletin boards. New programs are often supplemented with articles and brochures. Eddie Bauer's work/life area has become so extensive, human resources is currently developing a 100-page handbook that will be distributed to all employees.

"Eddie Bauer is regarded as a vanguard nationally in areas that affect individual and family standards," says Hoeft of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. "We encourage the type of comprehensive benefits programs the company has implemented."

As for the future, the company is not easing off. "We continue to listen to our associates for ways we can keep a level of balance high in their lives—both on and off the job," says Storgaard. "We want everyone at Eddie Bauer to feel they're working at the best employer in the country."

The message to Eddie Bauer's associates is clear: "This is your work/life program, make it work for you." And they do.

Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 76, No. 4, pp. 83-90.

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