Fight Employee Fears of Using Family Benefits

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Employees are often afraid to use family-friendly benefits because of perceived stigma, researchers and consultants say.

In a study published earlier this year in the academic journal Personnel Psychology, in which 154 firefighters and 440 nurses took part, the researchers found that “despite personally wanting to use family-friendly benefits, employees who perceive that others in their work group are not using, nor do not prefer to use such benefits, are less likely to utilize them.” That’s the case even if they’re wrong about others not using those benefits, the researchers said.

“Companies have been increasingly recognizing the value of family-friendly benefits and are offering more of them,” Ashley Mandeville, the lead author of the study, told Bloomberg BNA in a Dec. 20 e-mail. “But a paradox has emerged over the past few years: research consistently shows that employees want these benefits and that they improve employee well-being and productivity. Yet, as more companies offer the benefits, few employees are taking advantage.”

The study found this is happening because employees have the wrong impression “that their co-workers did not support using family-friendly benefits,” according to Mandeville, who teaches at the University of Alabama. “Past research has shown that these misperceptions are often driven by a small number of visible or vocal individuals.”

Some employees may not be seeing how common it actually is to take advantage of family-friendly policies, she said, since their co-workers who are using them are doing so “away from work (e.g. child care)” or else “at very specific times in one’s career (e.g. maternity/paternity leave).”

“It is important for managers to understand that simply offering family-friendly benefits isn’t enough,” Mandeville said. They have to speak out to build a working environment that encourages employees to use those benefits and corrects any wrong ideas that their use is discouraged in any way, she said.

“A Care@Work Better Benefits Survey found that 90 percent of employees have left work due to family responsibilities,” Al Zink, senior vice president of human resources at Boston-based family care website Care.com, told Bloomberg BNA in a Dec. 21 e-mail. He said that among “employees with caregiving responsibilities, there is a real fear that taking advantage of family-friendly benefits, like paid leave or flexible work arrangements, will make them appear less committed to their jobs or less valuable to the team.”

HR can’t do the job of reducing the perceived stigma, he said. “As HR pros, we can say all of the right things, but at the end of the day what matters most is the actions of employees, managers and leaders of the organization.” They're the ones who have to make sure subordinates know they can “use flex time or take their leave when they need it.”

For example, Zink said, managers can work at “encouraging teams to be conscious about when they schedule meetings—avoiding early mornings or end-of-day meetings does wonders for employees who have to make the day care dash. But perhaps the single most meaningful thing your people can do to remove the stigma around family-friendly benefits is to lead by example—and it starts at the top. If your CEO promotes flex time or telecommuting, then he or she should actually use these benefits.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

For More Information

An abstract of the study is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/peps.12124/full.

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