Benefits Column

Empathy, Effectiveness and Employee Benefits

If we want to attract and retain both older and younger workers, we must find ways to combine the real issues of people's lives with employee-benefits design.

Thursday, March 24, 2016
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In my experience, columns sometimes take on a life of their own. This is one of those columns.

It started out simply enough. In December 2015, I attended a seminar on osteoporosis in people of working age. The topic was interesting to me because, earlier in my career, I was part of a research team that studied the impact of exercise and nutrition on osteoporosis.

I realized three things after the seminar: The Surgeon General's projected osteoporosis rate for Americans in 2020 is 50 percent; while the aging population drives osteoporosis statistics, employees currently under age 50 account for almost a quarter of osteoporosis-of-the-hip diagnoses; and the reason we rarely talk about osteoporosis anymore is because there are pharmacologic treatments available.

The speakers' purpose in putting together the seminar was to propose a return to diet and exercise as both prevention and treatment approaches, especially in employer settings.

If my intended column was published in January 2016, you would have read a practical piece on the surprising incidence rates of osteoporosis and osteopenia in the employee population, along with a summary of costs and ways to help employees through new dietary approaches.

But here's where things took a turn for me. As I investigated the "alkaline diet" the seminar leaders had proposed, I found the credible sources I researched and interviewed said there was nothing magical about this dietary approach. However, since the diet is largely plant-based, it certainly is nutritious. That information was not particularly concerning to me.

What stunned me were the interchanges I had with a broader range of nutrition experts -- each invested in their own approaches to the American diet -- whenever I would ask questions about the research behind their belief systems. When I requested more depth beyond the anecdotal stories they shared or looked for evidence beyond single case studies, they questioned my intelligence in a way that was, at a minimum, insulting. I found myself craving healthy dialogue, discourse and -- dare I say -- debate, which got me thinking about our lack of conversation with colleagues about employee-benefits practices and associated employee behaviors.

Three months later, this column has now morphed into a call for discussion about employee benefits that includes a dispassionate exchange on the effectiveness of different approaches coupled with empathy both for our colleagues and our employees.

So let's continue with the theme of nutrition and extend it to include increased health risks and employee-benefits policies.

A copy of the March/April 2016 issue of Eating Well magazine randomly appeared in my mailbox in early February. As I scanned the pages, an article written by Karen Ansel on the risks associated with eating red meat caught my eye. I found it to be a well-written piece on risk calculation.

In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat (for example, frankfurters, ham and sausages) as carcinogenic to humans based upon sufficient evidence that the consumption of these food products causes colorectal cancer. The experts concluded that each 50-gram portion (about two ounces) of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

While I'm no fan of hot dogs, I have to agree with the article's analysis of risk. The lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer in the United States is 4.4 percent and 4.7 percent for women and men, respectively. If you consume a deli-meat-ham sandwich every day, your risk for being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is not additive. In other words, it doesn't increase by 23 percent (about 5 percent plus 18 percent). Instead, your risk rises by approximately 1 percent (18 percent of 5 percent). To place this in perspective, a risk increase of less than 50 percent is considered weak, 51 to 200 percent is moderate and over 200 percent is strong. (By comparison, smoking cigarettes increases your lung cancer risk by 2,500 percent.)

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Following the IARC announcement, I wouldn't feel compelled as an HR executive to ban processed meat from my employer-provided cafeteria, as it would likely anger some of my employees without any effective decrease in overall healthcare costs. I would, however, make certain there were choices available throughout the café, including highlighting (or subsidizing) more nutritious choices.

For me, employee-benefits design often comes down to offering options. I'll add here a second, less-comfortable characteristic: employing empathy. And, to make this even more challenging, let's add a third that comes from Tom Emerick (a benefits consultant who was also vice president of global benefits design at Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.): addressing employees' loneliness.

As we witness employee-benefits plans reduce in size and scope, and increase in worker-shared costs, HR leaders will find the most effective -- and empathetic -- ways to address employee productivity, satisfaction and retention are to deal with much tougher issues than healthcare or retirement-plan costs.

If we want to attract and retain both older and younger workers, we must find ways to combine the real issues of people's lives with employee-benefits design. These challenges include caregiving for both children and parents, paying back overwhelming student-loan debt and, yes, addressing employee issues such as loneliness.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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