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The Practical Employer

Benefits Round-Up: Domestic Abuse, Extra Vacation and Ingrained Health Attitudes

Difficult stories have been populating the business news space this past month, but there are some under-the-radar stories to note as well.

This month has been a rough month in the business news space, with sexual harassment in the spotlight and open enrollment stressing people out in both the individual and employer markets. I’m working on a separate post about open enrollment (feel free to contact me via email, twitter or the comment section below if you have valuable thoughts about open enrollment). Meanwhile, there are a lot of other things going on besides these big stories that are worth mentioning.

Domestic Abuse Victims and Paid Safe Time: A recent Time article gave me info on something I did not realize fell under the umbrella of paid time off: paid safe time for victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking survivors.

A few main ideas from this piece:

  1. Certain states are stepping up to guarantee paid time off to victims so that they can meet with law enforcement, move away from an abuser, and arrange for other potentially life-saving services without having to worry about the state of their employment or loss of income.
  2. Domestic violence can have a profound impact on victims, their job and their economic struggles. This is illustrated by the anecdotal lead in this article, which takes us through one woman’s four-year-long struggle with this problem. Also, there are statistics that back this up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, victims of severe intimate partner violence lose about 8 million days of paid work each year.
  3. More than half of workplaces don’t guarantee paid safe time. But this is partly because of the isolating nature of domestic abuse. Companies might not be aware of how these situations can impact employees unless they witness it directly.

Meanwhile, advocates see the national conversation surrounding Harvey Weinstein and similar allegations and think this could be a catalyst for national change, according to the article.

Vacations for Non-Smokers: A Japanese company is giving nonsmokers six more vacation days than smokers this year, according to a recent article. Apparently the motivation behind this policy is that nonsmokers complained they spent more hours working than smokers, so the company decided to give them more vacation time. The article reported that it was not motivated by the health/negative side effects of smoking, although when you use phrases like “standing around sucking on their death sticks” and “the company hopes [this policy] will encourage smokers to quit their filthy habit,” it’s hard not to believe that was part of the motivation.

This story is interesting to me because I have a complicated relationship with wellness incentives, especially when it comes to lifestyle choices. Oftentimes, the example people give for unhealthy lifestyle choices is smoking. It’s the easy, straightforward example because no one could possibly argue that they’re not aware of the negative side effects of smoking nowadays.

A few thoughts come to mind for “lifestyle” based decision like this one. First, what constitutes a smoker? Does that include somebody who only smokes socially every so often? Second, the domino effect argument comes to mind. If this move is being attributed to time loss and not something related to health or incentives, are there actions other than smoking that could warrant the same response? Consider social media use, time spent on bathroom breaks, etc. Third, if this is based on the time argument, wouldn’t it matter how much break time each employee is entitled to? If smokers are using legitimate break time, and smoking is how they choose to spend it, then giving them less vacation days than other people would be unjust.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to think this much about the policies of a Japanese company, but I don’t think it’s too off-kilter to see potential for similar policies in the United States. Smokers and non-smokers are treated differently in the workplace. Will U.S. employers go beyond shifting costs of health care premiums and begin shifting earned vacation days? Is that ethical? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Ingrained Health Attitudes: Don’t underestimate how much work it might take to incentivize an employee toward a certain health behavior. For example, while out at an Indian restaurant with some friends the other week, they began talking about getting sick and going to the doctor. One girl mentioned that her parents ingrained in her from a young age that she should get a physical every year, no matter how healthy she feels. Now, every August “schedule physical” is on her to-do list. Another friend hasn’t been to the doctor since before college because her parents taught her the exact opposite. They were generally healthy, so why go to the doctor? This friend always manages to forget to make that appointment because it’s never been an item of importance on her radar.

Certain attitudes toward health care are more ingrained than you think. It takes more than a push from your employer to motivate someone to reverse a habit or attitude they’ve had their whole lives.

Using Incentives to Drive Employee Wellbeing,” a recent episode of Health Advocate’s “Ask the Expert” series, explored this topic. “Behavior change happens over a long period of time. If you really are going to expect employees to make changes, it needs to be reasonable for them to be able to make those changes,” said Iris Tarou, director of wellness program services with Health Advocate. She added that employers have to realize they may not see a change for three to five years.

Something else that’s important is giving employees choice in the type of program they pursue. “With longer programs and more choices, people feel like it’s something that’s more realistic. They’re beginning to see that they want to make changes and that they have the time,” said Tarou.

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below or email editors@workforce.com.