‘Family-friendly’ benefits likely to irritate some employees

Unmarried, childless may feel left out

Suzanne Mercure has a cat; but like millions of other employees across the country, she doesn’t have a spouse or a child. As manager of health care programs for Rosemead, CA-based Southern California Edison (an Edison International power utility company), she understands why she can’t get paid time off if "kitty" gets sick.

But that doesn’t mean she has to like it. "You can get paid time off for an illness in the immediate family, but I have a pet," she says. "I feel that somehow, since I didn’t choose a traditional lifestyle, I don’t fit in."

Family-friendly benefits, from prenatal care, to child care, to flex time, have become increasingly popular with wellness professionals and benefits managers. They see such programs as a way to help employees balance the demands of work and family, while at the same time boosting morale and productivity and cutting down on unscheduled absenteeism. The programs also have proven to be sound financial investments, helping companies slash health care costs. (See related story, p. 27.)

But what about the employees who don’t directly benefit from these programs, who feel that in some way they’ve been overlooked, who are resentful when a fellow worker leaves the office early to take a child to soccer? "It can have a stifling impact and may mean less openness in the workplace," says Mercure.

"There are employees I’ve seen in other workplaces who ask, ‘Why do other employees get more than I do? Why are we doing more for some employees than others because of their lifestyle?"

Some employee resentment may be inevitable no matter what you do, says Denise Stichner, senior consultant, work life strategies, at Aetna, in Hartford, CT. "I’m sure there are [employees who resent family-friendly benefits]," she concedes. "But I’m also sure there are working parents who don’t believe we do enough for them."

While it may be impossible to satisfy every employee, wellness professionals agree you can get most of your population to buy into family-friendly benefits through a pro-active communications effort, education, a broad-based benefits program, and employee empowerment.

If you’re introducing family-friendly benefits in your work place, be as pro-active as you can as early as you can, advises Kathi Marshall, president and CEO of Minden, NV-based Marshall Educational Health Solutions, a publisher of wellness education programs that specializes in the area of family benefits. "You’ve really got to think the issues through," she says. "When selecting your programs, think of how they relate to the entire work force."

You should picture possible scenarios that may arise, Marshall advises. For example, if you have a leave policy for family illness, an employee who is not married could still use the benefit to tend to a sick parent. "Think through the objections you might get, and have your answers ready," she recommends.

You can also avert most employee complaints by dispelling some commonly held myths surrounding family benefits. "People who are not married may feel maternal benefits won’t do them any good, but ultimately they may touch another life somehow — their own brother or sister, for example — and they’d want it done for them," says Marshall.

Another myth, she says, is that family benefits mean more work for other employees. "They think that pregnant women will be in the ladies’ room with morning sickness all the time and require lots of time off. That’s really a myth because even if a certain percentage of women do have morning sickness, it passes very quickly."

As for frequent absences during pregnancy and the fear that "the team is breaking down," this is a myth that can also be dispelled when employees understand what’s really going on, notes Marshall. "Usually a pregnant woman becomes so sensitive to this perceived burden on her co-workers that she goes out of way to report to work — sometimes to her own detriment," she points out.

Another commonly held myth, says Stichner, is that employees without families somehow have to "pay" for those who do, which might leave less money for raises. "People need to understand that benefits budgets and compensation budgets are never mixed together," she says. "It’s also important to explain that if a low-birth-weight baby costs the company $1 million, all employees’ benefits will cost more."

The corollary, of course, is that if health care costs are slashed, employee benefits may ultimately cost less.

Accentuate the positive

Another way to minimize resentment of family-friendly benefits is to put in place a diverse benefits program and remind employees that there are many programs in place from which they do benefit directly.

"When you look at our programs, most of them relate to personal balance — how to manage stress, work flow, and so forth," notes Stichner. "If people look at isolated benefits like day care, single people can become pitted against families. But there are many things we offer that are not just for employees who have children, such as flexible hours, being able to take continuing education classes, or being able to go to the gym and work out at lunch.

"You have to help employees [broaden their viewpoint] and take responsibility for seeing what the company really does for them. You have to look at the whole picture — even benefits like 401Ks."

Power to the employee

A benefits policy that respects the individual has helped Dallas-based Texas Instruments avoid many of the potential pitfalls of family-friendly benefits, asserts Marsha McCabe, MS, director of health promotion.

"That hasn’t been our experience here at ‘TI’ because of employee ownership and self-responsibility," says McCabe. Giving employees a "voice" is an important value at the company and has actually "shaped the evolution of some things being offered today," she notes.

One of the key benefits at Texas Instruments that helps "level the playing field" for all employees is its "Time Bank."

Put simply, the "bank" works like this: Every employee has a certain amount of time off in their time bank, and it’s up to them to manage that time off.

"Employees can use the bank for the kinds of needs that are important and valuable to them," McCabe explains. "You don’t have to explain to management what you’re taking time off for; there’s no attendance policy or reasons given for absence." In short, she says, employees are being treated as adults and are empowered to manage their time as they are empowered to manage their personal health.

"I could take the whole day off to be with my dog if I wanted to," says McCabe. "It’s my reason."

That brings us back to Mercure and her cat. "We’re looking at a bank structure for total paid time off," she reports. "It’s certainly a big piece of the ‘respect’ issue.

It’s also beneficial to employee health, adds McCabe. "It absolutely contributes to lower stress," she asserts. "We know that from the science, and we also see it played out through experience. If employees have the ability to have a voice, to be involved, to be connected, you end up with a healthier population."

That is the best way to position your entire benefits package, she says. "Employees resent it if benefits are seen as a way to keep certain people happy. They should be seen as a way to optimize the health and well-being of your workforce," she concludes.

[Editor’s note: For more information about family-friendly programs, contact: Kathi Marshall, Marshall Educational Health Solutions, 930 Tahoe Boulevard, #802-222, Incline Village, NV 89451. Telephone: (800) 704-1075. Fax: (602) 443-3943.]