HR needs a better grasp of disability management to improve employee return to work

The goal for disability management is to ensure that the company’s human resources are able to continue to add value in the organization even after impairment develops.
By Jane Sleeth
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/10/2001

Disability management has become a hot topic in the business world in the last two or three years. A flood of talks, conferences, books and articles inundate HR professionals with information.

As a topic gains in popularity, it tends to take on a life of its own that few people bother to question. Certain terminology and accepted truths about the topic often result in thinking and acting “inside the box.” This line of thinking interferes with continuous improvement of HR practices that benefit both the organization and the employee.

In light of the volume of material about disability management in the marketplace, it is time for HR professionals to gain a better, and perhaps more informed, understanding of what it is.

This article is divided into three parts. The first defines disability management so that the HR professional will be able to step outside the box and consider alternatives when it comes to managing disability.

This can lead to the delivery of a truly effective and efficient set of processes that benefit both employees and the organization. The second part of this article describes the compelling reasons to look at the management of disability in the workplace, and the last part outlines the components of the disability management process as it relates to the workplace. It highlights the importance of HR professionals in managing disability in the workplace, since the majority of the responsibility rests with them.

Disability management defined

To begin, let’s examine and clarify the terms “disability” and “disability management.”

Disability may arise from the development of an impairment, which in turn results from the presence of an illness or injury. It is important to note that a disability may be temporary or permanent, and may include disability of either a part of the body or the entire body or mind. This is total disablement. It is also critical to understand that an employee who has an impairment is not necessarily disabled by virtue of the impairment. This occurs when the employer is able to change the workplace so that employees are able to fulfill all the functions required of them. In this case, employees can be said to have an impairment following illness or injury but may not necessarily be disabled. This is where the presence of disability management processes becomes critical.

Disability may occur as a result of an employee’s exposure to workplace hazards and risk, such as occupational injury or illness, or from the exposure to hazards and risks outside the workplace, such as non-occupational injury or illness.

When disability management processes and programs are in place, the impact of impairment on employees is minimized so that they may no longer be disabled from performing their work. The organization benefits by maintaining a valuable human resource within the organization since it adds value. The goal for disability management is to ensure that the company’s human resources are able to continue to add value in the organization even after impairment develops.

Disability management

as an opportunity

The management of disability in the workplace will become an increasing challenge and opportunity for the human resource professional for a myriad of reasons. Here are three of the most compelling arguments:

1. When disability management processes are in place, employees return to work quickly and safely after a disability. The human resource professional who has been doing his or her homework has realized for quite some time that organizations in most developed countries will face (or are already facing) a shortfall of talented and skilled employees over the coming years. In Canada, this shortfall is in fact expected to prevent us from sustaining our expected economic growth. If these economic and demographic predictors are correct, then employers will most likely no longer be able to just fill in the gaps when an employee is absent from the workplace due to a disability by simply hiring another employee.

2. The human element in an organization is the most important component. Without the human component, machines are not run, customers are not served and the business does not function. As Jac Fitz-enz states in his book, The ROI of Human Capital, “only people generate value through application of their intrinsic humanity, motivation, learned skills and tool manipulation.” To extend this discussion to the realm of disability management, we can conclude that when human resources are not present in the workplace due to a disability, they are not able to add value to the corporation. Having a disability management process in place helps ensure employees are adding value.

3. The cost of the human component in the workplace can exceed 40 per cent of corporate expenses. According to the 1999 study by Watson Wyatt, average direct costs associated with disability in the workplace are now 6.3 per cent of payroll. Given the expense of hiring, training and maintaining people, and the increasing costs associated with illness and disability, it is critical for human resource professionals to both understand what disability management is and how to put all the processes in place to manage disability.

Now that the definitions are clarified and the compelling reasons for the development of disability management processes in the workplace have been reviewed, it is time to look at some of the details of what comprises disability management.

It is important to point out that disability management is not a “program,” rather, it comprises a number of processes and programs that work in concert and as a continuous cycle. The process and program components should be thought of as a cycle versus a continuum because the data and outcomes from one component in the cycle will continually influence the other components and processes.

Some of the processes and components should include the development and review of metrics related to the management of disability, labour relations, employee assistance programs, regular review of pharmacological drug usage by employees, claims management, return to work and case management, performance appraisal systems and performance bonus programs, to name a few.

For example, an employee may need to be referred to labour relations or the supervisor to commence a progressive discipline process if he or she is found via functional testing (as part of the return-to-work program) to not have bona fide injury or illness, or if he or she refuses to co-operate with a return-to-work plan.

A regular review of the amount and types of medication being purchased by employees — for example increased use of anti-inflammatory drugs — may indicate that employees are experiencing injury or discomfort to the musculoskeletal system. This should indicate to the safety and ergonomics teams that they need to consider how job demands may contribute to the development of these injuries. The health professional in the workplace may review this data to consider modifying prevention programs to reflect prevention strategies for the musculoskeletal system.

Disability management does not directly include the prevention of illness and injury or the impairment of both an occupational and non-occupational origin. However, disability management should be closely linked with what we refer to as the workplace ability management, processes and activities that act to prevent injury and illness. This may include safety, industrial hygiene, health and fitness, as well as hiring practices and methods.

Disability management should not be isolated from the operations of the company. But it should be incorporated in all aspects of operations, while also having direct links with the core values, mission and business goals for the organization.

Disability management is comprised of a number of processes and program components that act in unison to diminish the degree of disability that may ensue following its development. The goals of disability management should be aligned with the workplace organization’s overall goal, for example, ensuring that the human component in the workplace is present in the workplace and healthy, and thus able to add value to the organization on a consistent and effective basis. The human resources professional needs to become aware of the true meaning of disability management as well as all the critical program elements which result in the successful management of injured and ill employees.

A future article will outline in more detail the concepts and programs which comprise ability management, as well as how this ties in directly with disability management programs and processes.

Jane Sleeth is managing partner and senior consultant with Optimal Performance Consultants, a national ergonomics and disability management consulting and training firm. She is the author of the newly released book, Return to Work Compliance Toolkit, published by Carswell. She can be reached via e-mail at

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