Employees look to their benefits package for additional income protection: The case for supplemental individual disability income insurance

By Shelly Mushinski, Director, Enrollment & Implementation, Guardian Life Insurance Company of America®

It’s not just about life and health insurance. Employees also look to their employer for benefits that matter, such as the need for additional income protection. Your benefits strategy carries a lot of weight with key employees and prospects, and there’s no question having a strong benefits strategy is fundamental to the way employers compete for top talent — and disability income coverage is an important consideration.

Group Long Term Disability (LTD) coverage can be a great and essential foundation for your employees. But Group LTD coverage offered through an employer may not provide enough income replacement in the event of a disability or prolonged illness that prevents an employee from working. A disabling injury or illness can be devastating, impacting your employees’ ability to pay their mortgage, support their families and maintain their lifestyle.

Potential for underinsurance: The income gap

The threat of underinsurance for employees and key executives is real. Consider the facts:

  • Three out of five people say their savings would last only six months if they became unable to work due to illness or injury.1
  • The duration of an average group long-term disability claims is 34.6 months2
  • 90 percent of long-term disabilities are caused by illnesses not injury3

As compensation increases for your employees, coverage caps can occur, and the result can be underinsurance that impacts an individual’s ability to replace an adequate amount of income. This is known as an income gap. Coverage gaps can occur for several reasons, including the fact that Group coverage typically replaces only 40 percent to 60 percent of before-tax salary; benefit caps may leave higher-earning employees with the lowest income replacement ratio; and taxes on employer-paid coverage can reduce benefits significantly. This leads to possible “reverse discrimination” or “benefit portfolio inequity” for your higher earning employees.

Incentive and bonus compensation are usually not covered by Group insurance. In addition, Group LTD may not include protection for retirement contributions or student loans and is not portable. Meaning, if the employee were to leave his or her job, the existing Group LTD policy would no longer provide disability income protection for the employee. These contributing factors increase the threat of underinsurance for your employees. But, luckily, there are ways to help solve for benefit inequity and inconsistencies in coverage.

The solution: Supplemental income protection

Although your employees can’t predict the future, you can help them better prepare for it. Supplemental income protection (or multi-life individual disability income insurance), provided through an employer, is an additional way to help protect employees by helping to close the income gap. It lets your employee focus on recovery instead of worrying about finances. The benefit is two-fold: the additional coverage benefits the employee from a protection perspective, and it also benefits your company in terms of recruiting and retention.

By offering supplemental income protection, employees obtain coverage through a simplified process known as Guaranteed Standard Issue. This often requires the employee to answer a few basic questions, but medical or financial underwriting is not required. The process is convenient and often easier than an employee purchasing a policy on their own — where an individual applying for a fully-underwritten policy may go through a lengthy process to obtain coverage. And although it’s a benefit received through the employer, the policy will be personally owned by the employee — so he or she can take it with them should they leave the company. In addition, some providers offer the ability to enable coverage to grow with the employee’s income during the annual review process, which is a valuable retention benefit for employers.

When considering insurance providers to offer this supplemental benefit, consider a provider that can design a benefits package with flexibility to offer a breadth of options that can accommodate: specialized executive benefits for your high income, high value employees, and supplemental benefits for other employee segments that speak to the demographics of your organization. In addition, look for multiple funding options to meet your objectives (voluntary, employer-paid, and cost sharing options/executive carve-out). Custom benefit strategies allow you to tailor funding options such as employer-paid for the executive population and employee-paid for other segments. Look also for an array of billing options to fit your administrative needs.

Enrollment Fundamentals

Employees are most satisfied with a new benefit offering when they clearly understand its value and how it applies to their situation. Insurance can be complicated, and employees may not understand the value of the product. To overcome this challenge, work with a provider on a strong educational approach, tailored to the demographics and culture of your company, so employees can feel confident in their decision. Personalized education is critical and educating employees on how their Group LTD plan works for them is essential. Working with a provider that offers a strong educational component is often perceived by employers as a major value-add service.

In addition, look for online enrollment strategies that provide educational tools to help employees calculate their lifestyle-related expenses to make an informed decision on the need for additional coverage. Look for a carrier that has flexible enrollment strategies that align with your benefit culture (they should seem like an extension of you). You should also look for a carrier that provides flexible strategies that “move with” enrollment activity – these are designed to engage and drive the employee to action. For insurance providers that offer online enrollment, enrollment and policy issue can take place in a matter of minutes, offering a seamless application process. Make sure to work with a provider that provides first-class implementation and enrollment support that always puts you and your employees first.

Supplemental income protection is a win/win

The bottom line is this: employees look to their employer to offer a benefits package that can provide added protection in the event of a disability or illness. By offering supplemental income protection, you can add value to your benefits portfolio – and also provide a competitive advantage for your company.

Shelly Mushinski leads the Multi-Life Disability Enrollment and Implementation Team at The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America®. She has been with Guardian since 2007 and in the insurance business for over 20 years. Her team helps employers to define enrollment, implementation and communication strategies that aligns with the company’s benefit culture and demographics.

1 Mind, Body, and Wallet” Guardian 4th Annual Workplace Benefit Study, 2016
2 Council for Disability Awareness, Chances of Disability, http://disabilitycanhappen.org/overview/, accessed October 2018
3 Council for Disability Awareness, Long-Term Disability Claims Review, 2014

 

 

 

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What happens when a health event causes your income stream to run dry?

By Fred Schott, Director of Operations, Council for Disability Awareness

If you’re one of the millions of working Americans currently making decisions about your employee benefits choices for the coming year, you’ve probably put most of your focus on the health-plan options, including what is or isn’t covered, which providers are or aren’t in-network, and how much will you have to pay out of your own pocket to satisfy the plan’s deductible and co-pay/co-insurance requirements.

And that makes sense. Health insurance is your employer’s highest-cost benefit (other than legally required benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation). It’s also the benefit that probably was most important to you when you were looking for a job and the one that has the biggest impact on your current job satisfaction.

One important thing health insurance doesn’t cover

But health insurance has one important shortcoming – it doesn’t make up for the income you’ll lose if a health event like an illness, injury, accident or pregnancy keeps you from temporarily (or permanently) being able to do your job.

You shouldn’t underestimate the likelihood of something happening to you. A recent study using data from the National Health Interview Survey estimated that just over 10 percent of the working-age population has a health problem that keeps them from working or limits the kind and amount of work they can do (in other words, a work disability). A different research study estimated that more than half of US household heads will self-report some kind of work disability between the ages of 25 and 60 (your prime working years).

Dealing with a six-week disability

So let’s say you broke your ankle after slipping on a patch of ice, or you broke your leg in a car accident, making you one of the 5.2 to 6.6 million people who experience a lower-limb fracture each year. Your job requires you to do a lot of standing, walking around, and carrying—and that means you won’t be able to work while you’re recovering. Your doctor says you can expect to be laid up for six weeks, which isn’t at all unusual.[i]

You’re going to lose six weeks’ worth of income—and your health plan doesn’t cover that. What will you do?

Protections available through Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

First of all, here’s a bit of good news: If you work for a firm that has at least 50 employees, and you’ve been working there for more than 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, you almost certainly are covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. And — as long as you can get proper certification that your fracture qualifies as a “serious health condition”[ii] under the provisions of the Act — that means two things:

  • All your benefits will remain in force while you’re out (although you might still have to make any required premium payments), and
  • When you’re ready to go back to work, you should be able to return to your old job or one nearly identical to it.

See the US Department of Labor’s publication The Employee’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act for more information on FMLA. Also, there are 11 states—including California, New Jersey, and Connecticut—that, along with the District of Columbia, have enacted their own FML acts that go beyond federal provisions. Check with your human resources contact to see what’s the case where you work.

But as helpful as FMLA is when it comes to giving you peace of mind about your benefits and job status while you’re recovering from a work disability, it doesn’t require your employer to pay you while you’re out. You’ll have to look elsewhere in your benefits ecosystem for an alternate income source to compensate for the one that’s run dry.

Paid sick leave: helpful, but limited

In recent years, a growing number of states and local jurisdictions enacted laws requiring paid sick leave. One of those laws may apply to your workplace. There’s variation regarding who’s covered, how much sick time employees are entitled to, when and how it can be used, and other legal fine points. (For more details on various paid sick leave laws, check out this comprehensive guide.)

Keep in mind a number of employers provide paid sick leave benefits even in the absence of a legal mandate. That number is expected to grow given the tax credit for employers providing paid family and medical leave that was included in the 2017 tax act. Your employer may be one of them.

But here’s something important to keep in mind about various paid sick leave provisions. Rarely, if ever, do they provide enough time to cover an all-too-common situation like your six weeks of recovery from a lower-limb fracture. In most cases, you’ll be able to count on a week’s worth of pay—or maybe two weeks, if you’ve been savvy about carrying over unused days from the previous year. What will you do for the rest of your time away from work?

Short-term disability: a useful benefit

At this point, you’ll need to press further into your benefits ecosystem to locate an income stream that will last longer than just a week or two. That’s where a short-term disability (or salary-continuation) plan becomes a helpful benefit.

Statutory disability

If you work in California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico, you’ll have what’s known as statutory disability coverage. The purpose is to provide you with some income while you’re unable to work because of a qualifying disability. (Here’s a detailed matrix outlining provisions of these various statutory plans.) What they have in common is this:

  • They kick in only after you’ve been out for a certain period of time (usually a week). That time is usually referred to as the “elimination period.”
  • They’ll pay you for a limited period of time (“maximum payable period” or “maximum benefit period” or some other terminological variation)—typically six months, although in California, it goes up to a year.
  • You’ll get paid a percentage of your pre-disability income (usually ranges 50 percent to 70 percent) with a cap on the amount you get in any week. (California has the highest capped amount at $1,216. New York, on the other hand, caps at $170, and Puerto Rico’s maximum of $113 is even lower.)

In these statutory jurisdictions, employers can provide supplementary or “enriched” plans that provide additional benefits above and beyond what’s mandated by law. You may want to find out if that’s the case where you work.

Employer-provided short-term disability

What about other states, where the statutory requirement doesn’t apply? Employers may provide their own plans. They’ll usually do so in partnership with an insurance company. The insurer will usually take care of approving claims, processing payments, and they will often provide services to facilitate claimants’ safe and timely return to work. The employer can fully fund the plan’s cost or, in return for a premium payment, hand off the financial risk to the insurer.

As with statutory plans, you can expect that:

  • Coverage will kick in after an elimination period. Usually, that’s a week, but in many cases, it can be more (two weeks or, more rarely, 30 days). In some cases, it can be less (zero days, which means coverage starts the first day of your absence from work). I used to work for two different disability insurance carriers, and when I consulted with client companies, I noticed most of them also provided sick banks or general paid-time-off banks that employees were expected to tap to get them through the elimination period with an income stream.
  • You’ll be covered for a relatively short period of time—usually three or six months. I’ve noticed that employers in the education and healthcare industries tend to frequently have shorter periods of coverage. And there are some instances where coverage can go for up to a year. My experience is that most of the time, the maximum payable period for the short-term disability plan is set up to track with the elimination period for the employer’s long-term disability plan (if there is one).
  • You’ll probably be paid a benefit amount that’s less than 100 percent of your pre-disability pay. I’ve seen salary-continuation plans (basically, the same thing as short-term disability, except the money comes out of the payroll budget instead of a separate fund) that pay you 100 percent of your salary, if you have more than a certain number of years of service with the employer.

But those are the exception. The usual payment is 60 percent to 70 percent of salary (and sometimes lower). And, in addition to the “benefit rate,” there’s probably also a maximum weekly payment amount. So, the amount of weekly income you can expect from your employer’s short-term disability plan is actually going to be the lesser of your weekly pay times the benefit rate, or the maximum weekly payment amount.

Key questions to ask about your employer’s short-term disability plan

So, there are three key questions you should ask about your employer’s short-term disability plan:

  1. How long do I have to be out of work before I can collect benefits?
  2. Once I start receiving benefits, how long can I count on them before they’ll stop?
  3. Given the benefit percent and maximum weekly payment amount, how much replacement income can I count on?

And now, let me add one more for you:

  1. Who’s paying for the coverage—my employer or me?

Here’s why that’s important to know. If your employer is picking up the tab for the cost of disability coverage, any benefits you receive under the plan are taxable to you. But if you’re the one who’s paying, then your benefits come to you tax-free. That can make a big difference in the amount of money you actually bring in while you’re unable to work.

This distinction between taxable and non-taxable benefits also comes into play in what are called core/buy-up plans. This is where an employer offers a core benefit (let’s say, a benefit rate of 40 percent) at no cost, and the employee has an opportunity to purchase additional coverage (for example, to bring the benefit rate from 40 percent to 70 percent). In this situation, any benefits stemming from the core coverage are taxable, but the buy-up benefits are tax-free. (Keeping track of what is and isn’t taxable and making proper withholding is another valuable service that insurance companies provide.)

Now that I’ve given you four questions to ask about your employer’s short-term disability plan, I’ll give you a fifth and final one:

  1. How do I sign up for the plan?

A lot of times—especially for plans where the employer pays the entire cost (including core coverage in core/buy-up situations)—you are automatically enrolled once you’ve met the criteria (usually involving hours worked and length of service) to become “benefits-eligible.”

But a growing number of employers are offering disability plans as an optional benefit. That means, you’ll have to make a specific benefits selection at the time of initial eligibility or at annual open enrollment to be covered. You’ll have to pay for the coverage (either with pre- or post-tax dollars), and you may have to answer some questions about your health and medical history (and those answers may affect your eligibility for the plan).

Bottom line: Find out what applies in your workplace.

Another way to get short-term disability coverage

You may also be able to get short-term disability coverage through an insurance company specializing in what’s sometimes referred to as worksite or voluntary coverage. In the past, these companies would send representatives to your workplace where they meet with you and, if you agreed to buy what they had to offer, enroll you for coverage. They still do that, but increasingly, you can interact with the company by using web-based technology. You can pay your premiums directly to the carrier or take advantage of arrangements the carrier made with your employer to allow for payroll deduction of premiums.

If you go this route, keep in mind because you’re paying for coverage with after-tax dollars, any benefits you receive will be tax-free.

What happens if you’re sidelined for a longer period?

Let’s say you’re one of the six million people with a work disability due to a back or neck problem. One out of every four people in your situation is likely to be out of work for more than three months (see Table 2 of this study). What if you’re in the top 25 percent?

That’s where long-term disability insurance becomes important. I’m not going to get into that topic here, because it merits in-depth consideration on its own, but you should at least check out what one of our guest bloggers has previously written about long-term disability coverage.

And, here’s something else to think about. When I worked for insurance carriers, the vast majority of employer clients had a policy of terminating people after they had been out of work due to disability for six months. Fortunately, in most cases, those terminated employees had long-term disability coverage. But, unfortunately, they no longer had health coverage through their employer (although they did have the option of COBRA coverage—an expensive option, and one that’s available for only 18 months after termination of employment).

My final words to you

If there’s just one thing you take away from what I’ve written here, I hope it’s this: If you become sick or injured (or leave work related to your pregnancy), your health insurance will help pay the medical bills. But if you’re unable to work because of an illness or injury, medical coverage won’t pay you. That’s why you need to become savvy about available resources—especially your employee benefits—that you can draw upon to provide replacement income. Remember that being out of work doesn’t have to mean out of money.

 

[i] You don’t just take my word for it. See the disability durations in Table 2 of this study. Also, check out the “Lost calendar days per closed claim, excluding pregnancy” metric on the short-term disability report in the Integrated Benefits Institute’s most recent set of health and productivity benchmarking reports.)

[ii] This is a good time to point out that the Family and Medical Leave Act addresses two different situations that might cause you to miss work: your own health, or a family member’s need for you to provide care for them. And that distinction pretty much applies to the various state and local leave laws (as well as individual employer policies and programs) relating to “family and medical leave” situations that have spring up over the past quarter-century. In this post, I’m addressing only leaves for “your own health.”

But understand that there’s often an interplay between the different leave types.

For example, if you’ve had a baby, the first six weeks after delivery are a period of medical recovery for you, so that time away from work would be considered as medical leave (your own health). But after that, you might need (and in fact be eligible for) additional parental or caregiving leave (for your newest family member). Be aware of your employer’s policies on this kind of leave (as well as any applicable state or local laws). And by the way, there’s a growing trend towards parental leave for the “secondary parent” (in most cases—but not always!—that means the father).

For a deeper dive on what kinds of family/medical leave programs are currently on offer, check out the first section of the Paid Leave Project’s Playbook resource.




The basics of the Social Security Disability Income Program

By Ted Norwood, General Counsel and Director of Representation, Integrated Benefits, Inc.

The United States Social Security Administration offers two programs—confusingly named Social Security Disability Income and Supplemental Security Income—aimed at providing or supplementing the income of people who are unable to work.

SSDI (also called Title II benefits) provides disability coverage for individuals who have paid enough Social Security taxes. The second program, SSI or Title XVI, provides a smaller benefit for people who haven’t worked long enough to qualify for Title II benefits and established a financial need.

SSDI and SSI require the same medical requirements to receive benefits. However, SSI also requires claimants to pass a stringent means, or income, test that establishes the applicant’s need.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the SSDI program. This benefit has greater relevance than SSI to the majority of employers and workers. In addition, this program frequently interacts with employee benefits, especially long-term disability policies.

But before I proceed, it’s important to remind you that I’m presenting basic information. If you have specific legal questions about SSDI, you should reach out to a lawyer. SSDI is a huge program with many regulations and significant administrative entities. My goal in this article is to focus on a few key elements that are important to employers and employees.

I find that most people know something about the SSDI program and many hold opinions on it already, but there is an abundance of misinformation. Before you can understand SSDI’s role in workplace absences, you must understand the program’s basics.

In many ways SSDI is like a private long-term disability policy that you have through the government. Like any insurance policy, the terms are important.

You must have worked to qualify

To receive SSDI benefits, you must have worked and paid the SSA’s taxes. If you are an independent contractor and don’t pay FICA taxes, you may not be covered. There are boring rules that you can access here if you want more information.

If you want to know if you are covered, you can simply contact SSA and they can tell you if you are insured and when your insured status would end if you stopped working.

You must qualify medically and vocationally

If you are covered, you may qualify medically for SSDI if you are:

  1. Not working
  2. Have limitations caused by medical conditions expected to last at least a year, and
  3. You are unable to sustain substantial gainful activity due to your limitations.

The SSA will deny benefits if they believe you can still perform a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy or if you can perform past work (from the last 15 years).

Many Issues are surprisingly irrelevant to the SSA

Social Security does not consider income in its evaluation of disability. If a person who made a high salary can still perform lower income work, they are not disabled under SSDI. Likewise, a person who worked in labor, such as construction or manufacturing, may not be disabled if they are still capable of performing less demanding jobs.

SSDI also does not consider whether jobs are available or if an individual may or may not be hired for a job. The SSA only evaluates whether an individual could perform the functions of a job that exists.

The SSA considers problems finding employment to be addressed by unemployment insurance. But, to that end, applying for both unemployment and SSDI will usually have detrimental effects on the SSDI application. The SSA sees the receipt of both benefits as generally incompatible (with exceptions).

The SSDI Application Process

Individuals may apply for SSDI on the SSA’s website or at a Social Security office. A state agency will evaluate the application, review medical records and determine if the claimant is disabled under SSA’s rules. This usually takes three to six months with a 34 percent award rate.

If denied, a claimant can request reconsideration by the state agency. This essentially repeats the process, with a 13 percent approval rate.

If denied again, the claimant may request a hearing before an administrative law judge. There is a nine- to 27-month wait from hearing request to hearing with a national average wait of 17.3 months. The ALJ’s decision takes about another 60-90 days and ALJs awarded 47 percent of cases last year.

There is one more level of appeal within SSA – the Appeals Council – but the success rate is only 10 percent. After that, a claimant must file a civil case in federal court.

Obviously, it is a long process. This wait has a huge impact on the claimants. Waiting 30 months to get a payment is not uncommon. The SSA makes retroactive payments in a lump sum, but that is often cold comfort for claimants. The average wait time for all claimants is about 15 months before they receive a payment.

When Awarded SSDI

Disabled claimants receive an average monthly benefit of about $1300. There is a five-to-six month elimination period at the beginning of the period of disability.[The SSA provides annul adjustments for cost of living.

Two years after the end of the claimant’s elimination period, they will begin receiving Medicare.

There are some programs in place to support attempts to return to work, with mixed results. The SSA generally schedules continuing disability reviews (CDRs) every three to five years.

SSDI certainly has some warts, but overall American workers benefit tremendously from this program.

 




Baby on board? How HR can help pregnant employees adjust

Creating a family-friendly workplace is vital for retaining talent—after all, 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s also becoming increasingly common for women to work while pregnant: The Pew Research Center cites Census Bureau data that shows 66 percent of mothers who gave birth to their first child between 2006 and 2008 worked during their pregnancy, compared to only 44 percent who worked during pregnancy in the early 1960s.

Since not all managers might feel comfortable addressing the issue, HR can come alongside the team to play an important role in helping pregnant employees adjust to their upcoming maternity leave—and eventual return. Here are five solid strategies to consider.

Make sure employees understand their benefits

This is a good time to talk with the employee about whether she has any questions about how to get her maternity and post-partum needs handled. You might walk through:

  • Company leave policies
  • What Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) forms she’ll need to fill out
  • Benefits-related questions such as whether any retirement match continues while on FMLA and details on how to add baby to the insurance policy
  • Information on disability insurance….many people don’t know that pregnancy is the most common cause of short-term disability claims.

Help create a transition plan for the employee with her manager

HR can be a big help in working with the team to help decide how work will be handled in the employee’s absence. Among the factors to consider, depending, of course on the employee’s role are:

  • How and when to tell the internal team
  • How and when to tell clients
  • Who will take over the work, as in will you be hiring a temporary replacement or dividing it among the existing workforce
  • How to best document project statuses to ensure the right people are in the loop
  • A checklist of day-to-day duties that others might not be aware of
  • A plan for who will manage existing direct reports
  • Proposed availability (if at all) during maternity leave, understanding that some of these details may change
  • A plan for the return, including potential part-time work to make the transition smoother
  • A document detailing what happens if she should go into labor in the office, including information about where she plans to deliver; phone numbers of doctor, doula or midwife; emergency contacts, etc.

The goal is to cover all potential issues to coordinate a seamless exit and pave the way for a pleasant return.

Create a mentoring program or support group

Becoming a parent is overwhelming and can place a lot of stress on a young mom (or dad!) trying to juggle a job. Many companies find that the first few months are crucial for eventual retention, and if a parent feels supported and understood, they are liable to make it work out.

That’s why you should consider hosting a support group where parents can meet to discuss and share issues related to childcare and other pressing topics. (Remember that HR should serve in an advisory role, rather than as a facilitator, to keep the conversation open and honest—and helpful.)

Pairing a returning parent with an experienced co-worker can also make the transition easier. They likely have many questions related to everything from work/life balance and how to travel as a new parent to helping get their baby into a sleep routine.

Set up a mother’s room

Many young mothers come back to work planning to pump, and find themselves thwarted by a lack of private facilities. Ease the burden on new moms by setting aside a walled-in space (with a lock!) where moms can retreat when they need to pump. Include a comfy chair, a TV and a fridge to store milk.

Strike a cautious note

You want to be careful not to overstep your bounds and assume something that isn’t true, such as that a pregnant employee is just going to quit or that a new mom won’t want to travel—many women want to keep their workload as robust as ever. Take care not to make assumptions, but rather to keep the lines of communication open for the best chance of retaining employees after their little bundle of joy is born.

And of course, at all times HR must take care to follow all applicable laws and ensure others in the company do the same.




Tackling the summer slide: Promote employee productivity with a twist

The lazy days of late summer are great…unless it’s your employees who are feeling a little bit too much summer fever. Because even though it’s the time of year when we want to hit the pool, the beach or the park, the work still has to get done.

However, employees have become more emphatic about “work/life” balance, and offering appealing policies can help fuel retention, an issue on the minds of almost every HR professional these days. That’s why it’s important to do what you can to promote employee-friendly offerings, while not turning the place into a free-for-all.

Here are six ways that companies can help their employees feel like they’re getting a little taste of summer while still getting the work done.

  1. Take meetings outside.

Remember when you were in school, and your teacher let the class take their reading circle to the playground on a sunny day? Heaven! Outside is the only place employees want to be, enjoying a little breath of fresh air. And it might even help them work better: According to the L.L.Bean 2018 Work and the Outdoors Survey, 86 percent of indoor workers would like to spend more time outside during the workday, with nearly three-quarters saying it would improve their mood and lower their stress levels. So see if you can indulge the team by heading out for a meeting in a nearby park or even in a green corner of the parking lot.

  1. Relax the dress code.

There’s something about capris and sandals that make you feel like you’re on vacation even if you’re working. If it’s appropriate for your workplace, consider loosening your dress code, even if it’s only on Fridays.

Make sure to put sensible limitations on the rules, such as no tank tops or athletic wear, or other specifics that are important for your particular office. If needed, remind employees that the relaxed dress code only applies to them when they are not meeting with clients or any other role restrictions you deem necessary – and recommend they keep a back-up outfit in the office in case they need to slip into something more professional for an unexpected meeting.

  1. Offer flexibility when it makes sense.

This can be tricky because not every workplace or department can accommodate flex hours equally. After all, phones still have to be answered, and client needs still must be met. But if there is an opportunity for team members to come in earlier a couple days a week – and thus leave earlier– make that an option.

“Summer Fridays,” where the office closes at noon, have become more common and probably won’t surprise clients. Or, if the phone or floor absolutely must be manned, see if you can at least rotate among the departments so there is still coverage. Of course, you have to emphasize that flexible hours don’t mean the work doesn’t get done – it just means staff has some choice of whenit gets done.

  1. Plan something fun.

Of course everyone has a different definition of “fun,” so take your culture and employees’ personalities into account before you plan an outing or event. Here are some great ideas for activities that are liable to please everyone, no matter their age, interests or abilities.

  1. Surprise them with a treat.

Same as the teacher taking the class outside, nothing says summer and “playing hooky” like the ice cream truck. So some Wednesday afternoon when it’s business as usual, surprise the office with a box of popsicles or ice cream sandwiches – or iced lattes if that’s more your team’s vibe. An unexpected treat can go a surprisingly long way in engendering employee’s goodwill and loyalty.

  1. Ask your team what they want.

And finally, if you’re out of ideas for helping employees enjoy these last few weeks of summer, find out what would make them happy. They might appreciate leaving an hour early to head out on a bike ride with their kids or coming in an hour late so they can enjoy a morning kayak session or an extra-long lunch break to soak up some rays at the park.

The bonus is that by surveying your employees, you’ll have some great intel to use when planning summer 2019.




Seven Ways to Keep Your Vacation Glow Strong

Have you recently returned from vacation, basking in the radiance that comes from relaxing in a tropical destination or enjoying new adventures with family and friends? Of course we know that vacations are fun, but they’re also good for us: In fact, a study from Expedia finds a host of benefits, with an overwhelming 96 percent of respondents saying they returned happier, 94 percent less stressed and 93 percent feeling better rested. Sixty percent even said they had a better attitude at work.

 

Unfortunately another study from the American Psychological Association found that those benefits might linger about as long as your tan…with 40 percent lamenting that vacation benefits only lasted a few days.

But you cansavor the positive effects of vacation. Here are seven ways to help prolong the vacation glow.

 

  1. Keep the evidence handy.

 

Often all it takes is a photo or memory to take us right back to the good times. So change the wallpaper on your computer to a montage of photo memories or re-create your password to be something that reminds you of your destination.

 

  1. Bring back a special souvenir.

 

Going someplace new can unlock a creative side of us or get us out of our comfort zone – new mindsets that can offer lasting benefits. The trick is to remember those wonderful feelings when you get back to the “grind,” so try to think of something you can bring home as a reminder. A special souvenir or nature-related memento such as seashells or rocks from a hiking path can be a talisman to refresh you to that carefree feeling of jumping in the waves or pride in conquering a difficult mountain hike.

 

  1. Transport the culture home.

 

And sometimes what makes a trip special isn’t an item itself but the overall vibe of the location. If you enjoyed a trip to Mexico, play some salsa music that reminds you of a fiesta you attended. Or if native cuisines held an important role in your trip, do an online search to find a recipe for the amazing Greek moussaka you had or a cocktail that you enjoyed al fresco every evening.

 

  1. Tie up loose ends before you go.

 

Coming home to a messy house or a bunch of work fires is a surefire way to completely forget all those wonderful, stress-free moments you just had. While you can’t control everything that happens while you’re gone, you can try to keep disruption to a minimum. That means taking out the kitchen trash so you don’t come back to a stinky house; adding an out-of-office message that hopefully refers callers to someone else so your email and voicemail don’t fill up; and maybe even pre-ordering groceries so your fridge is stocked with healthy fare as soon as you return.

 

  1. Ease back into it.

 

If you can, try to come home on a Friday night so you have the weekend to get your laundry done and your email cleaned out. Or at least try to put a “buffer” day on your out-of-office message to buy yourself a little time to get back in work mode. It’s brutal to have to attend an important meeting the minute you’re back in the office.

 

  1. Pay it forward.

 

Besides a bunch of hassles related to home or work responsibilities, nothing can kill a vacation afterglow faster than a startlingly high credit card bill. You will enjoy your trip much more if you pay for the majority of it before you leave, especially big expenses like the airfare and lodging, and then bring cash to cover the rest of the expenses. (Or set aside a special budget specifically for vacation expenses so the bill can be easily paid.) After all, the only thing you want lingering from your vacation is special memories, not bills.

 

  1. Plan your next outing.

 

Often the best part of vacation is the anticipation, and it can be a letdown to come home and realize you don’t have anything notable on the horizon. Of course, you should fix that with special outings every week or so, even if it’s to a park or outdoor concert, but there’s nothing like thinking of your next vacation destination to get that feeling back. So go ahead, start researching an upcoming adventure. Having something on the calendar will make it easier to jump back into work – after all, you’ve now got a new goal to save for.




Why You Should Start Your Holiday Shopping Now

Most of us groan when stores start displaying holiday decorations before the kids have gone back to school, but they may be on to something. In fact, the smartest way to shop is to forget about “Black Friday” and start your shopping in the summer. Here are eight reasons it will have you ho-ho-hoing come the traditional holiday season.

 

  1. You will have more time to buy just the right thing.

Impulse buys can kill your budget, but there’s something about holiday stress that can make you grab the first thing you see just to cross something off the list (or when the thing you were most hoping to buy is unavailable by the time you get your shop on). When you are able to start your buying early you have plenty of time to wait for a sale that puts the item you have your eye on within reach. Just make sure to save your receipts.

 

  1. You have more time to take advantage of price adjustments.

Speaking of saving your receipt, you’ll want to watch the item you’ve purchased to make sure that you get reimbursed should a sale roll around. To make it super easy, use an app like Paribus, which will track your receipt and “watch” your item for you to let you know if a price has fallen.

 

  1. You can shop the back-to-school sales.

Don’t want to give school supplies to your loved ones? Of course you don’t. But stores roll out the red carpet during the back-to-school season with a huge number of sales on everything from clothing to electronics. Even if the item you want isn’t on sale today, starting early gives you a much more likely “head start” that it will be eventually.

 

  1. And maybe realize tax savings.

We’re talking about “Tax Free Shopping Days”which many states hold in the summer to coincide with back-to-school shopping. Any discount counts so no reason not to head out and see what you can find on that magic day.

 

  1. You can get a more realistic idea of what things cost – and budget accordingly.

Were you misled that the jeans your daughter has her eye on could be had for a good price? You might be surprised at the price tag of coveted items and starting early gives you the chance to find out how they might fit into your budget – or if they do. If you do decide to get a particularly pricey item, you can then adjust the rest of your budget to accommodate it – maybe brown bag an extra day or two a week and put the savings aside — rather than getting stuck at the last minute having to shell out for the “dream gift” that comes with a nightmare price tag.

 

  1. You can spread out the bills.

No holiday hangover when you spend a little every month instead of a lot all at once in December. Considering that the average American adds an average of just over $1,000 in holiday debt, it can make it much easier to pay those bills when you spread it out over several paychecks.

 

  1. You won’t pay any rush fees.

We’ve all been there. You think you’ve done your shopping and all of a sudden you realize that you forgot something special for Aunt Mary. And just like that, you’ve incurred an extra $15 in shipping fees. Ordering ahead means that you have all the time in the world for the package to get lost or misdelivered – and you’ll STILL have it on time.

 

  1. You have more time to rack up (and redeem) rewards.

If you are in the market for a credit card anyway (we said “if” – don’t get a card just for this reason), you can spend the next few months putting expenses on it that you would pay anyway– from filling your gas tank to paying your electric bill, provided you intend to pay them off right away and not incur any fees. You can then use the points you’ve amassed to pay for gift cards or other purchases closer to the time.

 

And when you escape the holiday season with no extra debt, you can truly say “It’s been holiday miracle.”




Five Best Practices for Onboarding New Employees

For most HR managers today, attracting and retaining employees is at the top of their list of challenges, given the current job market. So once you’ve gone through the hard work of interviewing and hiring, you want to make sure that the employee is as pleased to be working for your company as you are to have them.

And that’s where “onboarding” can come in. While most employees are eager to make a good first impression, it’s a two-way street; in other words, the first few days on the job can set the tone for those to follow and make sure that your coveted employees doesn’t defect.

The possibility is real: One survey found that a whopping one-third of employees quit within the first six months of starting a job. Here are five tips for helping your new employees start off on the right foot, increasing the chance they will stay.

  1. Begin communication even before the first day.

The interim period from when you offered the job to when they start is a key time to continue to communicate your interest. A few emails once you’ve made the offer will assure them you are delighted to have them join you – and ideally prevent them from accepting another offer since you can never be sure who else they have been talking to. You might consider introducing them to various team members or start CCing them on internal documents. Reinforce that you don’t expect them to do anything until they show up; you just want them to know that they are part of the team.

And then allay their first day jitters and the awkwardness they may feel not knowing where or when to show up. The night before they start, send them a message that gives them all the details they need for a smooth first day – from dress code norms to what time to come in to where they should park to who will be waiting to meet them and show them around.

  1. Have them complete their paperwork at home.

Most new employees start the first day sitting in a room by themselves filling out paperwork and reading about benefits. While this is crucial information, it’s smart to send these documents to them before they start. Then they can copy down their Social Security, driver’s license and other numbers in the comfort of their own home. Having their benefits information in advance also gives them ample time to carefully consider their choices. Make sure to include information on health, dental, disability, 401 (k) and any other programs you offer so they can read it at their leisure.

  1. Introduce them to a work buddy.

Being the new kid on the block means you’re often not sure where the copy machine is, how to replace the toner in the printer or how early people typically arrive for a staff meeting. New employees can be hesitant to bug colleagues with what might seem to be “silly” questions, but the sooner they understand the norms of the office, the more at ease they will feel as part of the team. Find a friendly veteran who is willing to answer these questions to help them settle in faster.

  1. Schedule an appointment with the HR team.

Once they’ve had the chance to read over all the benefits information, schedule a short meeting where they can come in and get all their questions answered. New employees might be reticent to reach out and ask details on the disability benefits or the procedure for asking for vacation days or how to get their commuting costs reimbursed. By setting aside time for them to chat with a knowledgeable representative, they will feel more comfortable availing themselves of the benefits you offer.

  1. Look at a robust onboarding program as an investment in better performance.

While training might seem to take time away from your team’s day-to-day output, remember that investing adequate time upfront to thoroughly explain your company’s procedures and answer questions is ultimately going to yield better results.

 

When you successfully onboard an employee, you’ll be sure they understand your policies and procedures and feel confident they are contributing from the start. And a confident employee is one who is going to work harder – and stick around.

 




Six Back-To-School Expenses to Start Budgeting for Now

While December is typically considered the traditional “budget-busting month,” September, with the back-to-school season, is close behind. In fact, the back-to-school shopping season is the second largest shopping event of the year, with 29 million households expected to shell out $27.6 billion in 2018, according to Deloitte. But any parent with school-aged children will tell you that the actual “back-to-school” shopping is just one part of the host of expenditures you’ll face as September rolls around.

The good news is that you still have time to budget for these expenses so you can cover them without dipping into your emergency fundor succumbing to consumer debt.

Here are six expenses to start thinking about now and tips for making them cost a bit less:

 

Back to school supplies

At some schools, school supply lists seem to grow ever longer. But, you’re in luck because most big box and office supply stores are having amazing deals on almost every type of supply.

Shopping around will yield different sales at various stores, so give your child the circulars and have them plot your supply shopping strategy. Download the stores’ apps for even more savings.

This is also the time to stock up on supplies for the rest of the year, so you’re not paying full price when your child loses the scissors or the homework folder falls apart.

 

Afterschool sports

Trying something new is a great way to build confidence, but often a new sport comes with a cost curve of both lessons and new equipment.

If your child wants a few private lessons to brush up, consider hitting up a sporty teen to do some work with them, rather than finding a pricey specialized coach.

And see about borrowing equipment or buying it at a resale store – at least until you find out their level of devotion to the sport.

 

Tutoring

Is your kid falling behind in math or having trouble with their reading? Academic issues should never be ignored, and sometimes classrooms just don’t have the capacity to offer the individualized instruction that would benefit some children.

But after-school tutoring centers can be costly. Ask around to see if there’s a retired teacher or even a smart and patient teen who could help your child brush up on some basics for less.

 

School pictures

Of course you want to see your darling grow up right before your eyes, but the packages that many schools offer can be pricey – and often the pictures end up being disappointing. Many families always buy a portrait to line their walls, which is a great idea, but don’t get lured into purchasing a large package. If you want to maintain the annual portrait tradition, order the smallest package you can.

But don’t feel obligated to buy official school photos if you don’t want them. With today’s great smartphone cameras, we can all be photographers, and the shot you take of your smiling child in your front yard might be far better than a forced studio photo.

 

Transportation

Get ready to pull out your “taxi driver” hat if you’re like most parents, constantly shuttling kids to and from afterschool activities. Sometimes your wallet can take a hit if you’re driving long distances for specific practices. Your best bet for saving time and money is to team up with parents and start a carpool.

If dropping off and picking up at multiple homes becomes onerous, have every kid meet at a specific spot so that you can pick them up all at once.

And, a pro tip for the “chauffeur:” Rather than taking one way and having someone else pick up, try to go both ways on the same day. You’ll save time and gas by not driving one way with an empty car. Instead, use the time to run an errand, do some laps around the track or catch up on your reading.

 

School fees

These can vary widely depending on your school district and its funding models. In some schools, almost everything is covered via property taxes, and in others, parents pay for everything from field trips to teacher supplies.

When the fundraising pleas come home, please give as generously as you can, even though it coincides with these other expenses. And consider joining the parent-teacher group, which typically funds events, assemblies and other important activities at school. Your child will thank you (and so will his or her hard-working teacher!)

 




Team-Building Activities Your Team Will Actually Love

Trust falls. Ropes courses. Bowling or mini golf. Many offices plan a summer team-building activity designed for camaraderie, but forced group fun can cause anxiety in many. Maybe your office mates don’t know each other particularly well, or there are people of so many ages and ability levels that anything too physical can be a non-starter. The great news is that there are still a wide variety of team-building activities you can plan that everyone will love. Here are six to consider.

 

Throw a board game competition.

 

Not everyone’s great at kickball or golf but almost anyone can find the fun in a round of Monopoly or Sorry. Board games are having a resurgence, and it’s easy to see why. Everyone takes turns, works cooperatively and has a blast. Consider classics from everyone’s childhood or find a new one where everyone can learn the rules together. Depending on the size of your office, you can allow people to choose from among several or rotate every 45 minutes or so. Keep the competition level light and the snacks heavy.

 

Host a scavenger hunt.

This is another cooperative game that can be fun for all ages and abilities. Compile a list of offbeat items both inside the office and outside – if you’re close to a city, head downtown for even more fun. Have the gang take photos of the items they find, and gather back at the office after an hour or two to share wild stories and enjoy a snack.

 

Trade jobs.

What does Annette in accounting or Sam in sales do anyway? Sometimes walking a mile in another employee’s shoes can help promote better understanding – and possibly a renewed sense of appreciation and even patience. Work out a schedule where employees visit other departments to experience what others do; have each department offer a brief overview and then let the group loose to do a sample project — for example, working up a new client sales presentation or troubleshooting cybersecurity threats, just for fun, of course. After a couple of rotations, meet back and have the group share some observations or surprising insights about what they learned about other teams’ roles and challenges.

 

Plan a family day.

Often work activities fail because your employees may not want to give up precious free time to socialize with colleagues. That’s where a family fun day can serve triple duty –allowing them to be with their family, but also showing their family their workplace AND allowing coworkers to get to know each other better through their families.

Make sure there are suitable activities for all ages, from a bouncy house for the younger set, to games for older kids and a photo booth and plenty of food for everyone. If your budget allows, splurge on some sort of entertainment, maybe a music group or a family-friendly comedian. Make sure you have name tags on hand so everyone knows who belongs to who and plenty of action to encourage mingling.

 

Have a reading club.

If you don’t want to devote an entire afternoon or day to the team-building activity, or sense that this type of mixing wouldn’t be well-received by your staff, consider having a Book Club instead. Ask everyone to read the same book (you might provide copies so they don’t have to finance it) and give the team ample time to read the book and then hold a discussion to get everyone’s thoughts on it.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a list of recent business books that have gotten attention, or you might consider something by Malcolm Gladwell, who writes books full of engaging stories that have applications both for business and personal growth. Another option might be a book written by someone in your industry, such as “Shoe Dog” if you’re in retail or a creative field.

 

Volunteer together.

Believe it or not, almost half of respondents to one survey said their employer’s volunteer policies played a role in accepting an offer. While an ongoing volunteer program can be a powerful perk, even a one-day stint working as a group at a food bank, cooking a meal at a homeless shelter or assisting another non-profit that’s important to your team can help increase their bonds – and also give them the “helper’s high” that accompanies volunteering.

Not sure what project might resonate? Just ask! Maybe offer a couple of choices and either split up or let the group vote on which one might receive your collective power this time. Volunteering can be a huge win-win for your team and everyone whose lives they touch. And who knows…you might just spark an ongoing commitment for several of your team members.