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Flex time: Why your leave policies need to be re-examined

There's a strong need to keep pace with demographic trends

Jun 2, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

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Alberta has a happy problem. Workers in the province miss fewer working days than do workers anywhere else in the country. According to a recent Conference Board of Canada study, at just less than eight days per year, Alberta has the lowest average rate of employee absenteeism in Canada (tied with Ontario; the Canada-wide average was 9.3 days). Research also shows that the happier a worker is, the fewer days they miss.

On the face of it, then, Albertan workers must be among Canada’s happiest. Well, not so fast, the Conference Board study’s authors warn. They also note that Alberta has the lowest union-density rate in Canada, and that ­employees tend to use whatever leave they are given. As the authors further note, unionized employees tend to have more generous ­entitlements to leave and stronger protection from termination than do non-unionized workers. Alberta’s leading absentee rate could reflect two possibilities, then: either sanguine workers, or workers showing up when they possibly should not, for fear of losing their jobs.

“To be an employee and to be a caregiver is extremely stressful. Time away from work at that point is actually very beneficial.” – Louise Chenier, researcher, Conference Board of Canada

Canada-wide trends suggest the latter scenario is at least probable, too. Consider aging and eldercare. A 2013 study by Statistics Canada, for instance, found that eight million Canadians aged 15 and older now provide care for someone in their family. That caregiving is predominately linked to illness, aging or disability. But research also shows that workplaces are not keeping pace with this shift. A 2012 report by researchers at the University of Alberta found only five per cent of employers allow workers to work some or all of their time at home, only four per cent allow for reduced time requirements ­during portions of the working year, and just 50 per cent allow for what should be a no-brainer – ­paid-time off during the day to attend to emergency family needs, such as caregiving. Since aging is one of many stress factors facing today’s workers, and leave policies are lagging, the possibility that some are working when they shouldn’t is high.

The Conference Board report says absenteeism cost the Canadian economy $16.6 billion in 2012 – and undeniably, much of this cost was absorbed by employers. But as the trends imply, the brave new world for employers will be to balance the costs of absence with the costs that their employees could absorb if they force themselves to come to work when all is not well. “There’s definitely a difference in how we should look at these various types of leaves,” says Louise Chenier, a social science researcher and co-author of the Conference Board report. Considering trends and best-practices, one way to do that is to find a better balance through re-considering your leave policies.

Sandwich, Anyone?
Babies – and the resulting maternity and paternity leaves – have always been common discussion in workplaces. But babies are not the only reason people take time away from work to care for others nowadays; there are also aging parents. As Chenier says, many workers today are providing care for both. “They’re having both of those stressors at the same time,” Chenier says, noting what’s called the ‘Sandwich generation’ – a group of people who have gone to school later in life than their predecessors and therefore have started their families later. Chenier says many employers are starting to include leave considerations, like eldercare, or at least emergency eldercare and childcare, onto their benefits programs.

These new leaves are known as non-compable absences. “Non-compable [absences] are things like ‘My child is sick,’ or, ‘I have an elderly parent that I have to provide care for,’” Chenier says. The leaves can be paid, but often are not. But the alternative is possibly worse, she says. “To be an employee and to be a caregiver is extremely stressful. Time away from work at that point is actually very beneficial.”

Late last year, Alberta became the last province in Canada to adopt provisions in its employment standards legislation for compassionate care. Bill 203 allows workers to deal with bereavement or provide compassionate care for someone who is terminally ill without fear of losing their jobs as a result. “In Canada, the caregiver role is the most stressful role you can have,” Chenier says.

You Make the Rules
As noted, unlike many Canadian provinces, employers in Alberta are largely not subject to legislation that defines sick leave or other short-term leaves. Nor are they governed by a law that spells out what sort of time is acceptable for employers to offer or for workers to demand. Instead, Alberta, along with B.C., the NWT and Nunavut, leaves sick leave up to the employer.

Perhaps this should be seen as an opportunity to tailor your policies to your workforce and to your bottom line. Elsewhere in the country, stay-at-work programs are becoming the norm to deal with employee absences, Chenier says. These programs, she says, help employees remain in the workplace when they are having health problems or other difficulties that prevent them from working in some capacity. She notes, however, that the Conference Board study found only about 40 per cent of workplaces offer them; it’s not enough. “We still have a ways to go,” Chenier says. “Stay-at-work programs can keep an experienced and knowledgeable employee in the workplace.”

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And Chenier says these employees do not require expensive training like new hires do. A smarter approach, both ethically and on a cost basis, is to consider being more flexible as an employer. Consider a worker who requires medication for an illness; that medication makes them drowsy in the morning, making them struggle to come to work during regular hours. Rather than finding a new worker, why not tailor the hours to keep your existing employee, who already understands your ­business and contributes? “Offering accommodation doesn’t really cost the organization anything, but would allow an employee to return to the workplace, to keep that ­knowledge,” Chenier says. “I think it’s imperative for employers to focus on those programs.”

Be Careful in the Cafeteria
Rather than pick from a set menu of benefits, as their Boomer parents might have done, Millennials are interested in choosing what works best for them. The “cafeteria benefits” approach applies to taking leave from work, too – either flexible work-from-home ­arrangements, the ability to take time in lieu for overtime, or simply the freedom to take leaves to deal with life outside the workplace.

To make this work for you, the employer, benefits should be costed out. If an employee wants flexible leave time rather than comprehensive dental coverage, it’s in your interest to know the base cost of each. But Chenier says it’s also in your interest to educate your workers before they opt out of important perks.

“What’s been discovered is that you need to make sure, if possible, that some of your benefits are core benefits,” she says. “Employees don’t necessarily understand the value to them of things like long-term disability. It’s better if those types of benefits are given, and a portion is flexible, where employees can choose, say, ‘I don’t need extended dental but want more flexibility in my leave’ … because benefit literacy is actually quite low.”

Accommodating these desires does not need to cost money, but will bring monetary benefit, Chenier says, as it will lead to more engaged workers.

Parlez-Vous Francais, Baby?

Leanne Findlay, a social science research with Statistics Canada, co-authored a recent study that found some interesting things when it comes to the most discussed reason for employee leave: pregnancies. Most mothers report taking some kind of leave, Findlay says. The average length of that leave is 44 weeks. For men, one-quarter of fathers reported taking leave, Findlay says, and the average length was 2.5 weeks. Canada wide, 83 per cent of women with a newborn took leave.

So what’s the surprising finding? In a word, Quebec. Fully 97 per cent of Quebec mothers took paid parental leave and a striking 72 per cent of fathers did, too. “In Quebec, almost all children have mothers who take leave,” Findlay says. The average length of leave is longer, too. The believed reason is different policies around parental leave in Quebec, Findlay says.

Other findings: Mothers who reported being self-employed were less likely to take leave and took shorter periods of leave, and men who worked full time were less likely to take leave for children than were men who worked part time.

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